COVID-19: Cheers to the private sector

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In prior articles, I have railed against China, the United States (and its institutions – the president, the media, and the Democratic Party), and the WHO. Of the EU, a region I haven’t written a whole piece on, I wrote: The EU is a “failed political project that has failed the coronavirus test and might never fully recover.” Of Africa, I spoke of hope that it will rise from the coronavirus crisis and realise its inherent promise – I was skeptical that it will then, and I am more skeptical now.

Given my critical positions, on governments, institutions, and politicians and their handling of the coronavirus crisis, as detailed in my previous work, a family member asked me “who do you like.” My simplistic response: “the private sector.”
The reason for the question, as I believe it, was that I have been critical of everyone and everything and that I have not found the time to highlight and/or talk about positive responses to the pandemic. Well, here is my cheers to the private sector. And no, this is not some anti-government tirade. (But, maybe it should be given stories like:Coronavirus in Africa: Contained or unrecorded?; US Treasury sent $1.4bn of pandemic aid to dead people; ‘Very significant’ resurgences in Europe alarm WHO. These stories, at least from my perspective, do not inspire confidence in government.) However, to be fair,governments have important roles to play and they are the entities uniquely designed, and better suited, to combat crises, at least in theory, although they have been flailing during the coronavirus crisis – read my previous pieces to see how. Moreover, only governments have the fiscal capacity to handle pandemics (again, in theory.)

All over the world, even in China, as governments have shut borders and imposed locked downs, under the auspices of flattening the curve, the private sector has stepped up – Forbes has a coronavirus business tracker that lists examples of  how the private sector is fighting the coronavirus crisis – and tried to help governments, institutions, and people weather the coronavirus storm. (We can discuss whether China really has a private sector another time.) Private sector support has come in the form of financial commitments and contributions, innovation and transformation of existing infrastructure, and the mobilisation of technology. What is pleasing to see is, that in resource constrained Africa – the continent that loves the strong man and believes only government can fix problems – the private sector has stepped up to the plate and is active in the coronavirus crisis fight. (The African private sector in action should be a model, going forward, for what “Africa in action” should be – enough with sole reliance on government. Again, not an anti-government tirade.)

Support to national healthcare systems

Private companies are making donations to governments to help alleviate the stress coronavirus has inflicted on the medical sector.  For Instance, the American multinational corporation that develops medical devices, pharmaceutical and, consumer packaged goods, Johnson & Johnson announced a $50 million commitment to support frontline health workers battling the coronavirus. “The funds will be earmarked for assisting the doctors, nurses, midwives, and community health workers who are working tirelessly to treat patients around the world during the novel coronavirus pandemic.” In another instance, multi-level marketing company in beauty, household, and personal care categories, Avon Romania has donated 1.7 tons of liquid soap and shower gel to quarantine centers in Bucharest. Avon Romania also promised a cash donation to support the medical system.

In major cities, cities that have been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, hospital systems and hospitals have received (or are receiving) much needed support from private companies. In London, luxury footwear and accessories brand Jimmy Choo promised to donate $500,000 to support relief efforts in the UK ( and also globally.) “The donation will see the ‘NHS COVID-19 Urgent Appeal by NHS Charities Together’ receiving [$250,000] to support hospital staff, volunteers and others on the front line caring for [coronavirus]patients.” In New York, world-renowned, award-winning designer of luxury accessories and ready-to-wear, the Michael Kors brand, promised to donate $1m to support local relief efforts. Further, Michael Kors brand founder, Michael Kors, and John Idol (CEO of Capri Holdings – the Luxury fashion group that includes Michael Kors, Versace, and Jimmy Choo) promised to make personal contributions of an additional $1m towards these efforts. The combined $2m “donation will be distributed to a number of organisations to support relief efforts in New York City. Two of the city’s largest hospital systems, NYU Langone Health and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, will each receive [$750,000] to support emergency patient care, financial relief to frontline medical staff, and related clinical and diagnostic research.” In Milan, luxury fashion company, Versace pledged to donate $500,00 to support local efforts in response to the coronavirus crisis – The San Raffaele Hospital is to receive $400,000 to provide critical aid to the hospital’s intensive care unit for patents battling the coronavirus, and $100,00 will be “donated to Camera Nazionale Della Moda Italiana for the ‘Italia, we are with you’project, an initiative to donate ventilators and medical equipment to the country’s hospitals.”

Similarly, global Luxury group that houses brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, and Brioni, the Kering Group, is playing its part in combating the coronavirus crisis. For instance: On January 28, 2020, in China, Kering and its Houses announced a donation to the Hubei Red Cross Foundation to help fight the spread of the virus; On March 11, 2020, in Italy, Kering and its Houses made donations to the four major foundation hospitals in Lombardy, Veneto, Tuscany, and Lazio; And, on March 22, 2020, Kering said it “will provide the French health service with 3 million surgical masks, which the Group will purchase and import from China.”

Support to international organisations

Another way the private sector has stepped up, during the coronavirus pandemic, is through making donations and contributions to international organisations to help the organisations combat the coronavirus crisis. For instance, on March 25, 2020, Swedish music streaming and media services provider, Spotify, announced it was setting up a COVID-19 Music Relief, “a project through which users will be recommended verified organisations to donate to. The organisations offer financial support to people in the music community worldwide whose jobs have been affected by the spread of the coronavirus.” Further, Spotify announced that it would match dollar-for-dollar public donations, up to a total Spotify contribution of $10m.

However, by far, the biggest international organisation to benefit from private funding is the WHO.  (It is for this reason that the WHO failing, because of itself and China’s corrupt influence, is so worrisome. As of now it seems the private sector – and indeed, some governments and other institutions – still trust the WHO. However, what should be without doubt is that the WHO and must be reformed or disbanded if reform proves impossible.) Most of the private sector’s donations have flowed to the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund – a solidarity project which allows individuals, corporations, foundations and other organisations throughout the world to directly support the work of the WHO to help countries prevent, detect and respond to the coronavirus crisis.

On April 2, 2020, luxury fashion group, Capri Holdings, announced the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund will receive $250,000 enabling countries to prepare for and respond to the coronavirus crisis, and support medical professionals and patients worldwide by providing critical aid and supplies. In like manner, on May 5, 2020, Spanish clothing design and manufacturing company, Mango announced that the company would collaborate with the WHO. The brand will donate 1% of the sales revenue from physical stores to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Similarly, American commodity chemical company, Dow announced  part of the $3m it committed the coronavirus fight will be donated to  the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. (Dow’s $3 million commitment was not limited to the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Part of Dow’s commitment was to 1. donate to Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid organisation, to distribute medical supplies; and 2. Provide support for local and regional non-profit organisations in Dow communities around the globe.)

Support for vulnerable communities

Private sector companies have also realised that it is not only state hospital systems (and hospitals), and international organisations – ones on the frontlines fighting the coronavirus crisis – that need support. Several vulnerable communities exist, and the private sector has taken notice and extended a helping hand. For instance, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, “[t]he private sector is playing an increasingly important role in mobilising vital resources to support millions of refugees worldwide. NRC is receiving support from both new and long-term partners, in the form of grants, pro bono services and workplace giving programs. Other examples of support for vulnerable communities include: 1. Bumble, granting $1 million to women-owned businesses hit by coronavirus; 2. Subaru donating 50 million meals to help feed people in need during the coronavirus crisis; and 3. PepsiCo launching a $7m initiative to help U.S. communities hardest hit by the coronavirus – the initiative is a  comprehensive project and will provide “$1m each to the National Urban League and Unidos US to help feed families and seniors, increase medical care and testing, expand access to government support and provide technology for remote education and work, with a portion of the funds focused on post-recovery relief.” An additional $5m will go to local nonprofit partners to provide support and services that meet the specific needs of Black and Latino communities, including: coronavirus testing and screening; access to affordable nutrition; healthcare services; education, job training and business resources; economic and childcare assistance; and family and senior housing.

Creative support solutions

Beyond financial commitments and donations, the private sector has developed “creative and selfless” solutions to help fight the coronavirus crisis. On the creative front: “In Canada, an anesthetist managed to turn one life-saving ventilator into nine. In Italy, a company used its 3-D printer to manufacture much-needed ventilator valves to be used in that country’s overwhelmed hospitals. These entrepreneurs then created another life-saving device… [–] ‘a snorkeling mask already on the market to create a ventilation-assisted mask for hospitals in need of additional equipment, which was successful when the hospital tested it on a patient in need.’”

On the selfless front, Companies have transformed their production lines. For instance, Dow announced it has begun producing hand sanitiser at its manufacturing site in Stade, Germany, and is repurposing an existing facility to produce hand sanitiser in the U.S., as well.” Similarly, General Motors offered to build ventilators for coronavirus patients at idled auto plants. In another example of transformation, clothing company, Brooks Brothers announced that it would convert clothing factories into mask, gown factories during coronavirus pandemic.

Mobilisation of technology

Beyond creativity and transformation, technology provided by the private sector has been vital in the fight against coronavirus. In South Korea, “private sector companies have developed real-time dashboards and mobile apps to further increase public awareness and effectively disseminate disease information. Such technologies (e.g. Corona NOW, Corona Map) allow people to visualize data on confirmed coronavirus patients, along with the patient’s nationality, gender, age, which places the patient has visited, and how close citizens are to these coronavirus patients.” In another example of technology being used to help fight the coronavirus crisis, “researchers trying to understand where best to send supplies or how to mitigate outbreaks are now being helped by Facebook’s disease prevention maps that display population density, demographics, and travel patterns.” Moreover, “as George Mason University’s Tyler Cowen also explains for Bloomberg, ‘Skype and Zoom sessions will replace many a class, and the textbook companies are stepping forward with electronic portals that present classroom materials, interactive exercises and grade student answers.’” This is not mere conjecture. For instance, recognising the fact that technology is vital to the future of education, commercial bank and financial services company, Santander Argentina, has donated money to universities to boost IT capacity and provide support for students and teaching staff.

Africa in action

In the detail above it is noticeable that I have not mentioned any African private sector companies stepping up to the plate. Do not be tempted into concluding that the African private sector has sat on the sidelines during the coronavirus crisis. I deliberately omitted Africa above as I wanted Africa to have a standalone section.

In Africa,  “the pan-African business organisation, Afro Champions – which was created to help fight Ebola – has launched a [coronavirus]response fund in partnership with the African Union and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), aiming to raise over $150 million to support the continental response and procure the necessary medical supplies. The funds are being contributed by a coalition of African banks, including Ecobank, Standard Bank, and Equity Bank; several private equity firms; and healthcare companies.”

In two of Africa’s largest markets, Nigeria, and Kenya, private companies – large (established blue chips) and small (startups) are mobilsing finances, skills, and supplies to aid governments in the fight against the coronavirus crisis. “In Nigeria, the Dangote Group, Access Bank, Zenith Bank, Guaranty Trust Bank, MTN, and KPMG [came]together to form the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) [to provide]financing for [the]immediate purchase of medical supplies and the creation of isolation centers. Guaranty Trust Bank worked quickly to transform a stadium into a 110-bed isolation center within five days in partnership with Lagos State.” In Kenya, a “team of startups in ecommerce, clean cooking stoves, and micro-distribution created a platform called Safe Hands Kenya to deploy free soap, hand sanitiser, cleaners and disinfectants, and masks to Kenyans through hundreds of thousands of distribution points. The coalition is unique in that it pairs startups with established manufacturers, has raised an operational budget, and has appointed a full-time project team. All parties have committed to a zero-profit margin on Safe Hands’ activities and to delivering with speed even to the last mile.”

Private sector involvement is not limited to Nigeria and Kenya. In South Africa, Africa’s second largest economy,  the private sector’s response  to the coronavirus crisis has been described as exemplary. (What was the head of South Africa’s government doing while the private sector was mobilsing? Well, he was joking about being arrested for violating his own lockdown measures. I am being a little unfair. By most reports I have seen South Africa has done an amicable job responding to the crisis – I guess I am still mad, on behalf of South Africans, that they were forced into prohibition. As to why I am mad although I was not affected, I do not know – actually, I do, “monkey see, monkey do” is very toxic in Africa. What happened down south could have affected me. May still. I digress.)

I would be remiss not to mention private sector involvement in smaller African economies. For instance, in Zambia, Barrick Gold Corporation donated $530,000 to support the country in combating and containing the coronavirus pandemic – $340,000 of the donation was to be used to procure necessary medical equipment. In another instance, Zambia’s largest fast-moving consumer goods company, Trade Kings donated $1.51 million. The donation was to be used to help the government identify coronavirus hotspot areas, procure necessary medical equipment (including but not limited to ventilators, PPE, Nasopharyngeal swabs, infusion pumps, syringe pumps, high pressure type medical oxygen regulators, medical oxygen flow meters, Nasal cannulas, water chamber exchange connectors, R filters, Oropharyngeal airways, and video laryngoscopes), and to raise awareness. And in another, telecommunications company, Airtel Zambia donated approximately, $278,000 to fight against coronavirus. Additionally, even before the donation Airtel was disseminating messages about the coronavirus pandemic at no cost to the entire base of Airtel customers every day. (Zambia’s other telecommunications operator MTN should be ashamed. MTN Zambia provided an assortment of sanitary products including 25 foot powered hand washing facilities, hand sanitiser lotion, N95 face masks and surgical gloves valued at $2,778 – this donation, to be honest, is quite pathetic, given MTN Zambia, recently invested $9.8m in network upgrade operation. Dead people cannot communicate – I am just saying. But, once again, I digress.)

Given the above, I believe the private sector should be celebrated. The private sector has stepped up (where it had no obligation – ok, maybe there is a moral obligation but that is a discussion for another day.) As related to the private sector, Free markets are also worth celebrating. As for the free market: The free market has been essential to survival during the coronavirus crisis. The groceries and hand sanitisers on store shelves did not end up there because the government ordered them there or because of someone’s generosity. “Bottled water? Face masks? They are available because someone is turning a profit by making and selling them. The first latex gloves were invented in the 1880s but the disposable variety that are so useful right now have only been available since 1964, as innovated by the private company Ansell.” And what is the mighty contribution of government these days?: “To order quarantines but not to tell you whether you can step outside, how you will get groceries, how long it will last, who you can invite in, and when it will all end. Do not try to call the authorities. They have better and bigger things to worry about than your sorry plight that is causing you sleepless nights and endless worry.” Even as deep into the crisis as the world is governments still do not have a handle on the crisis. Locales that were opening may be, and some already are, forced back into lockdowns. A vaccine is still nowhere in sight. When and how it will be safe to get people back to work is unclear. The problems are numerous, and the governments of the world are short on solutions. Still, remember this is not an antigovernment tirade.

To wrap up, I leave you with this: “It is easy to feel depressed and scared these days. News about the impact and death toll of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, is constant. Government responses have been chaotic, ranging from near indifference to suddenly shutting down the economy, with politicians offering to pay for everything. Yet we should not lose sight of the exceptional vitality that the private sector is demonstrating during this mess. It will make a difference, so cheer up!”

The views expressed in part six of this article are Nkosi Mfumu’s own opinions and not necessarily those of Business Tech Africa.

About the author: Zambia-based lawyer (licensed to practice in the State of Illinois) holds a BA in International Studies (with a concentration in International Relations) and is also a Juris doctor.

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