A Six-Step Roadmap to Enhance Private Sector Resilience to Health Risks
Early in my career as a field engineer in Brazil many years ago, I learned the importance of relying on a first-hand understanding of the local contexts in which projects are designed and implemented.
With the same mindset, last August, as I was witnessing the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and economy of Latin America, I felt pressed to hear directly from our clients about the real struggles that the virus had imposed upon their business, and their communities.
So, I commissioned a survey which was administered to a subset of 35 of our private sector clients across multiple sectors – a group collectively managing over 78,000 workers – to learn about the effectiveness of their health-risk management strategies. Although the survey results would be directional rather than representative given the small sample size, they could offer important insights into what was going on the ground.
Among those surveyed, nearly 60% temporarily ceased work or faced major project delays due to the pandemic and 77% experienced COVID-19 cases among their workforce. Clients identified significant new risk factors particularly when relying on a large workforce, subcontractors, suppliers, and migrant workers.
In practice, the integration between worker and community health issues was not being systematically implemented by most projects. Only three of the projects surveyed had considered pandemics in internal risk assessments and had related management plans prior to COVID-19.
Respondents focused on a series of takeaways, including the enhancement of their human resources capacity, integrating community health issues in existing management systems, supporting workers' and families' mental health, promoting a health prevention culture among management and workforce alike, and strengthening local and regional health facilities, especially for communities with limited or no access to clean water and sanitation.
This six-step roadmap was built on such insights:
1. Business leadership will benefit from embracing a broader definition of health, fully integrating workers, and community health issues, as way to better understand how public health issues impact projects and vice versa. Corporate boards and business leaders will need to clearly articulate the business case for taking proactive action. Awareness-raising and training among staff, contractors, and suppliers on health risks will help this goal.
2. Community-worker health issues must be well integrated with management systems and incorporate a continuous improvement process as part of environmental, health, and social management systems. Community health baselines must be developed to better monitor and evaluate the influence of the operation in the local context. Ensure that these issues (e.g., pandemics, extreme weather events, etc.) are considered and controls are identified. Include the health risks and impacts identified during the stakeholder engagement plans and grievance mechanisms. Ensure that management plans and controls can be adapted on a continuous basis through active engagement with workers and communities.
3. Fix management gaps in labor and working conditions to ensure inclusion. For example, women and indigenous people may be more vulnerable to experiencing negative effects from projects and may be less likely to benefit from their positive effects, such as access to training, employment, and contracting opportunities. Angles related to gender, human rights, and indigenous peoples must be taken into account in assessments of project impacts on people and the environment.
4. Engagement, collaboration, and alliances with the public health sector are needed. Proactive relationship-building and partnerships will facilitate planning. Engagement with public health stakeholders upfront is part of project risk management. Robust engagement with the health sector also brings in health capacity and skills that may be lacking within a project’s internal skillset.
5. Strategic investment to support local health initiatives must focus areas where the private sector can play a key support role. If best practices in social investment are followed, there can be huge benefits from projects developing long-term strategies to build capacity and resilience of local health care sectors in ways that leverage local strengths. Invest in strengthening the capacity of the local health care system; support health education (for workers and communities) and increased coordination between traditional and modern medicine to improve worker and community resiliency to future health crises. Support training of local health and public health personnel who understand regional health contexts and can provide invaluable service to businesses. Digitize health records, invest in telemedicine which allows specialists to provide quality care in hard-to-reach areas without trained personnel.
6. Make business play a leading role in global health issues. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that today’s health issues are exceptional in magnitude and complexity. Identifying, managing, and addressing current and emerging health risks will require innovation, commitment, and strong partnerships across all sectors. Build a robust understanding of the drivers of emerging health risks and get involved in global health discussions to identify collective solutions to challenges, and integrate health as a value in business culture.