Public Health Emergency or Opportunity To Profit? The Two Faces of the COVID-19 Pandemic
In this commentary the authors explore how multinational corporations have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic and what can be done by health professionals to reduce such exploitation.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste”. The exploitation of disasters by those in powerful positions is not a modern phenomenon. For centuries, multinational corporations have demonstrated a remarkable ability to turn the misfortunes of others into opportunities for lucrative gains. It was therefore no surprise that the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic would be seen as offering many such opportunities.
Corporations exploited weaknesses in government procurement, with many particularly concerning reports from the UK, as documented in detail in The New York Times. However, this was only the most visible form of egregious behavior. Some corporations exploited the pandemic in other ways, seeking to bolster their credentials as good corporate citizens and secure policy responses.
An initiative led by the NCD Alliance in collaboration with the SPECTRUM research consortium used crowdsourcing to identify many such examples. They described four ways in which corporations producing unhealthy commodities, including tobacco, alcohol, fossil fuels, infant formula, and ultra-processed food and drink, have taken advantage of the pandemic, based on submissions from more than 90 countries. These companies moved quickly to portray themselves and their products in a positive light, employing long-established but largely discredited corporate social responsibility (CSR) tactics that align with their interests.
They also seized opportunities to forge links to governments, increasing scope for lobbying, and incorporated messaging on their contribution to the pandemic response into their marketing.
Looking ahead, some of these corporations are seeking opportunities in the Build Back Better agenda, working to influence those policies that respond to the widespread desire to create a better normal than what went before. Yet many of the pressing issues that we must tackle in a post-pandemic world, including the unequal burden of ill health and unequal access to safe and healthy living and working conditions, are at least in part a consequence of the drive by these corporations for deregulated environments. The culture of profit at any cost must give way to profit for purpose, based on shared prosperity for all, if a better and sustainable future is to be realized.
Health professionals have a crucial part to play in exposing the limitations of CSR and its underlying contradictions, while asking whose interests are ultimately served.