As all live through unprecedented times and global uncertainty, the question remains of which direction the global economy will take post-COVID-19 and whether investors will use this opportunity to shape a more sustainable world. Our contributor, Yelena Novikova was named “G20 Young Global Changer-2017” as well as “G20 Young Global Changer-2018” for two consecutive years thanks to her advocacy and research work on integration of financially material Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) factors into corporate and investing strategies. An avid magazine contributor, she often takes international stages to speak about various aspects of ESG /SDG Integration and public policy. Your Public Value welcomes her today as she reflects on ESG, Values, and Post-COVID-19 Inclusion: Which Way Will We Turn? 

“The Next Frontier” in ESG Investing?

Just days before the novel coronavirus started its “international tour” and the first deaths were confirmed in Italian Lombardy, the UN PRI’s Fiona Reynolds called disability inclusion “the next frontier” in ESG investing.

To back her up, “Voya’s” Paul Gennaro further claimed that “this [was] going to be front and centre” at this year’s Global Ethics Summit.  Merely two months later, we seem to live in an entirely different world. “Ethisphere” is now looking to reschedule the aforementioned Summit, while countless ESG webinars and zoom conferences shifted its focus to pandemic issues.

COVID-related online hangouts covered great variety of aspects so far: from pandemic/ vaccine bonds and insurance policies for gig economy workers on one hand to resilience, adaptivity and deglobalisation of supply chains on the other.  Between the nature of the new global recession and corporate anti-fragility, one might wonder if the word “disability” is somehow lost in ESG discussions these days.

After all, it might be tougher to get people excited about 10.7 million of untapped talent in the US alone, when 47 million employers that represent over a half (54%) of all employers worldwide operate in industries hardest-hit by the pandemic.  

Or Is Disability Still “Front and Centre”?

We might argue whether this largely global lockdown is about lessening the strain on healthcare systems, or about finding an adequate balance between maintaining our humanity and our economy. Yet, dis/ability has been at the very core of it. Hiding in plain sight.

As we’ve heard again and again, COVID-19 supposedly discriminates against older people and those with pre-existing conditions (be it cancer, diabetes, cardio-vascular disease or chronic respiratory illnesses). Notably, nearly a half (47.7%) of all SARS-CoV-2-related fatalities registered in New York City as of April the 14th, 2020, occurred in patients over the age of 75. Another quarter of deaths (24.6%) was associated with patients between the ages of 65 and 74. The remaining quarter of mortalities (23.1%) was almost exclusively attributed to those aged 45-64, with those aged 0 to 44 contributing less than 5% to the morbid statistics.

One could begin to estimate the potential for ageism (and, effectively, “ableism”) that “opening up the economy and non-essential businesses” could present even before getting into the COVID-19 risk factors. David Sinclair, a celebrated geneticist, who studies aging at Harvard,  has recently re-laid the thought he’s been trying to communicatefor years:  “We can call aging a treatable condition, if not a disease that we can prescribe medicines for”. Furthermore, he added that “aging is the main cause of disease and disability on this planet”.   

Public Populism vs Autocratic Liberalism

It may come as no surprise that the voices formerly known for their dissatisfaction with Greta Thunberg and “Fridays for the Future” have now switched to bashing physical distancing measures. As I’ve mentioned in my previous “Your Public Value” blog,  we’ve been fairly successful in getting governments to facilitate green finance policies. Yet, in the age of “fake news” it gets increasingly difficult to educate people, as members of the public become pawns of [economic] populism.

One can observe a remarkably similar picture, when it comes to public opposition to lockdowns. I’m not talking about Boris Johnson toying with the ideas of “herd immunity” here. After all, we all know that even the man, whose flirtation with populism largely led Brexit, has eventually turned towards a more human-centred approach in pandemic management.  I’m not talking about the conservative pundits and politicians like Glenn Beck or Dan Patrick, who called for the economy to open up at the cost of human lives, either. After all, we’ve seen Americans all the way from Albany to Michigan honking to essentially give them “freedom” to die.

We tend to view lesser liberal societies as a blend of autocratic governments and liberally inclined public. Meanwhile, the sad reality is that in places that are conventionally referred to as non-liberal, governments might opt for surprisingly more humanistic and progressive policies than their societies would demand. Yesterday, none other than President Putin addressed his nation reminding that: “…in primitive times, old people, sick children, weakened people were simply abandoned for the survival of the entire tribe… But we live in the 21st century. And I will say bluntly: those who now offer to sacrifice people and leave them to their own devices, in fact, call for a return to savagery and barbarism”. Adding that “…the society of Sparta was indeed built on a rigid order. However, this did not help either. And ultimately, she lost her statehood. As the saying goes, the story is instructive”.

Neighbouring Kazakhstan, whose government has been heavily criticised by the general public for investing in Green Economy programs and its state-of the art “Astana International Financial Centre” (AIFC) to pursue sustainable finance, has been equally criticised for swiftly reacting to the COVID threat. The country, that was quick to declare the state of emergency upon detecting its first cases, is now easing the lockdown rules. With number of infections continuing to rise, this decision is clearly meant to satisfy the public that has been more worried about the economy and personal entertainment than values and public health.

Bet on Virtues of an Average Human?

We can build resilient, anti-fragile and adaptive companies just as we can encourage governments to adopt more human-centric policies. Yet, the COVID-19 crisis reinforces the message, that was laid out by climate emergency. We cannot realistically tackle these problems without getting the general public to buy into it.

In its “Getting to Equal” Report, “Accenture” writes that Disability Equality Index (DEI) “…[c]hampions achieved… 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins”. For better or worse, willingness of regular customers to put their money where their values are, is at the core of this system. If disenfranchised public can sway governments away from human-centred approaches, who is to say how such reversal in public values is to affect corporate values?

With most of us working from home these days, physical distancing can trigger the golden age of disability inclusion. That is, if we don’t let ageist ableism slip into our lives along with the pandemic challenges. The way we turn will depend on how well we protect our vulnerable and our values along with them right now.

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