21 April 2020
WWF Switzerland CEO Thomas Vellacott shares his views of a world touched by a pandemic

Now, more than ever before, the world is connected by something smaller than the human eye can see. Yet its impact is beyond measure. A pathogen. Never has the world experienced a pandemic that has reached every corner of the globe: from Asia to Africa and from Europe to the Pacific and beyond, every country is battling against COVID-19. 

The Impact Hub network brings together like-minded social entrepreneurs, innovators, partners, and industry professionals who are passionate about creating lasting change in places and for people who are the most in need. This is what has driven and shaped our global partnerships from the very beginning. For 9 years and counting, WWF and Impact Hub have collaborated and supported innovations to accelerate, and scale solutions tackling environmental issues and economic opportunities in local communities. 

Thomas Vellacott, the CEO of WWF Switzerland and a board member of the Impact Hub Association has been involved in many such partnerships over the years. In these surreal times, he shares his views about how we might approach the current situation. This is very much an exploration into connection and what it means to be human in today’s society. 

Responding to a Surreal Pandemic 

‘Surreal’ is a word that comes up frequently in conversations to describe life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our current experience simply does not correspond to reality as we know it. We struggle for words and search for precedents that might act as points of reference as we try to navigate the crisis. Parallels are being drawn between the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial crash of 2008, the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s or even the Bubonic Plague of the mid 14th century. If such comparisons can teach us anything, it’s just how different these earlier crises and their causes were from today‘s pandemic. The near-simultaneous closing down of large parts of the world economy that is currently happening is quite unique. 

Acknowledging that we are in uncharted territory is not a bad starting point. But how might we then act in this unique situation? We could do worse than approach it with a mix of humanity, humility, and experimentation. 

By acting with humanity, and by that I mean recognizing that this crisis brings with it immense physical and psychological pain and untold grief, we can reflect on these experiences and act accordingly. It‘s a truism to say that crises bring out the best and worst in us. I am not about to join in the tirade against inconsiderate ‘others‘, who insist on partying instead of practicing physical distancing, or who fight over the last rolls of toilet paper. Instead, we should acknowledge that, when we feel existentially threatened, we all tend to put our own interests first. But we also all have an immense capacity for helping others, even (or particularly) in times of crisis. It‘s our choice what path we follow. 

There are countless inspiring stories being shared online about big and small acts of compassion and support among family members, neighbors, and strangers. Beyond such personal acts of humanity, it‘s worth thinking about what acting with humanity means in a business context. The reflex, here too, is one of self-preservation. There is nothing wrong with cutting non-essential expenses and preserving cash. However, if such actions are implemented at any cost, they quickly turn into a policy of beggar thy neighbor, in which all risk that can be passed on is offloaded onto employees, suppliers, and customers. But organizations do not exist in isolation. They form part of larger ecosystems and the health of these ecosystems is vital to their survival. The more resilient an ecosystem is as a whole, the more likely it is to absorb shocks and bounce back after a crisis, to the benefit of all its constituents. This underlying connectedness is encapsulated by the words printed onto crates containing Chinese medical aid for Italy: 

“We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.”

In times of uncertainty, it‘s tempting to look for guides who pretend to know what lies ahead, hoping to find comfort and direction. As might be expected, the COVID-19 pandemic is producing more than its fair share of prophetic futurologists. But predictions made in times of high uncertainty risk being either meaningless extrapolations from a redundant past or wishful thinking inspired more by ideology than observed fact. While predictions or prescriptions may promise shelter from uncertainty, they risk blinding us to what is actually happening around us. Given its uniqueness, we should approach the current situation with a healthy sense of humility concerning our ability to predict the future. While it‘s harder work, it‘s worth choosing observation over prediction, suspend judgment and instead focus on understanding the changes we see occurring around us. For example, it‘s much too early to predict the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it‘s worth observing that governments are putting together stimulus packages of unseen proportions – over 10 percent of GDP in the US, and more than double the stimulus assembled in the wake of the financial crisis. Similarly, it‘s worth observing how people engage in virtual collaboration. But it‘s far too early to speculate about what lasting effects this may have. 

Finally, experimentation may well be the most appropriate course of action in a situation of high uncertainty. Experimentation allows us to “feel” our way forward, getting rapid, real-world feedback and enabling us to correct our course, if necessary. In times of crisis, many of us become innovators, whether we sought to or not. From yoga studios broadcasting their sessions using Zoom to churches adapting their liturgies to online formats, we have rarely seen this much experimentation by so many. In addition to individual efforts, the current crisis offers the opportunity to harness our collective creativity and entrepreneurialism in order to counter the pandemic and its fallout. Hackathons such as VersusVirus, WIRVSVIRUS and Cada Dia Cuenta for example, are a promising way to bring together diverse actors to collaborate in overcoming the crisis. 

Humanity, humility, and experimentation will not make the COVID-19 pandemic go away. They can, however, help us to get through this surreal crisis together and jointly shape its aftermath. 

Thomas Vellacott is CEO of WWF Switzerland and a board member of Impact Hub Association. Views expressed are personal.