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By Angela Rossetti
In 1895, H.G. Wells imaginatively traveled into the future in a time machine. In that future, he found two classes of humans—angry underground workers and an above-ground leisure class without ambition, energy or leadership. Business as an integral, ethical part of society simply did not exist.
Twenty-three years later, a flu pandemic emerged just as business was becoming the engine of American prosperity—millions of Americans had already crowded into cities to earn a better living in factories than they could on farms.
When the flu hit New York in 1918 theatres and businesses did not initially close. Saloons were still serving in Providence, department stores and restaurants were open in Philadelphia, and sporting events drew big crowds. In September of 1918, Babe Ruth appeared in Connecticut to support the troops who were still slugging it out in WWI and drew 5,000 fans. Just three days later, the state health department issued a second warning about the flu.
By October, there were more than 33,000 cases in Connecticut alone, spurred in part by business-sanctioned public gatherings.
Physicians and nurses were largely alone in the fight, astounded by the fast and deadly spread of the disease. On the other hand, business leaders were notably absent.
More than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic rolls around the globe like a tsunami, however the corporate scene is drastically different. Doctors and nurses are not alone as business leaders harmonize with science and sociology to stop the spread. GM and Ford are making respirators, liquor distillers are producing hand sanitizer, Ivy League clothiers are creating fashionable masks, and retired executives are helping to find a vaccine.
Indra Nooyi, former CEO of Pepsi, is leading a multi-disciplinary task force comprised of an epidemiologist, a bioethicist, and a former FDA commissioner in order to get the quarantined masses out of lockdown and back to work.
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million people. Covid-19 will likely kill far fewer, in part because of the responsiveness of clear-headed, ethical business leaders working collaboratively with government and healthcare sectors. By acting ethically, today’s business leaders may help change the trajectory of this deadly killer, and in doing so, they are lightyears ahead of their early 20th century counterparts. H.G. Wells would be impressed.
Angela Rossetti is a former Vice President of Global Commercial Development at Pfizer and a consultant to the biopharmaceutical industry. She is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical and Medical Ethics at New York Medical College and a guest lecturer at Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.