Longevity opportunities in the post-Covid world

Longevity International’s Tina Woods discusses how Covid-19 has catapulted health to the top of the global agenda.

Tina Woods is CEO and co-founder of Longevity International, a social enterprise bringing together stakeholders to provide a unified voice and coordinated action on Longevity; the organisation also runs the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Longevity in the UK.
Tina’s book ‘Live Longer with AI’ is being published on 9 October and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Tina shares her thoughts with us on Longevity in the post-Covid world and the opportunity for society and business.

Bill Gates famously warned in 2015 that the next big threat to humanity was a pandemic that “we are not ready for.” But did he predict that the Covid-19 virus would take the top spot as the greatest disruptor this century – ahead of technology and the aging population?

Living with the pandemic has become the new normal, and made the world realise that health is our greatest asset and cornerstone of prosperity.

But who could have imagined, even six months ago, that governments around the world would inject over $9 trillion to save the global economy? These bailouts are ushering in a new era of state intervention in our lives and the public is on-side.

Respondents to the Edelman Trust Barometer conducted in April want government out front in all areas of the pandemic response: to provide economic relief (86%), to get the country back to normal (79%), to contain Covid-19 (73%), and to inform the public (72%).

The barometer also shows the pandemic has cast a spotlight on systemic inequity – with 67% believing that those with less education, less money and fewer resources are bearing a disproportionate burden of the suffering.

“… arguably the even bigger crisis looming is the chronic disease “epidemic” … health is where the climate change agenda was 10 years ago …”

There is no doubt that the fracture lines of society have been horribly exposed, with those in the poorest health and living in deprived communities hardest hit. For some countries, the immediate threat has receded at least for now – whereas for others, like in the US and South America, worse is yet to come. Most experts agree that we will be living with the pandemic for some time, even if a vaccine becomes available later this year.

While governments and healthcare systems wrestle with the immediate crisis, businesses have had to act quickly too.

Almost overnight, major companies shifted most of their employees home to work remotely, and patients turned to chatbots, apps and video calls rather than travel to the clinic to see their doctors. The pandemic has shown how quickly we can make radical changes to our lifestyles, abandoning habits and practices long seen as essential – and leaving empty trains and desolate city centres in the process. These shifts may not be temporary either – indeed may become permanent reminders of dramatic behavioural and cultural shifts underway.

Rather perversely, many positives are unfolding that are powerful and compelling. For one thing, leaders have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how societies can provide healthier, better, greener, and more equitable outcomes for all, an opportunity that the World Economic Forum has hailed as the Great Reset. The cornerstone of this Reset is a new “stakeholder capitalism”; indeed, in May 2020, a Fortune survey found that roughly half of chief executive officers believe the crisis will accelerate their move towards this more inclusive version of capitalism.

And it will be the innovative, ethical companies responding nimbly and creatively in addressing the urgent societal challenges facing us who will benefit most – as proponents argue that social returns will bring commercial returns too.

Companies like Sainsbury’s prioritising deliveries to the most vulnerable and Co-Op using its community wellbeing index to triage support during the crisis; LMVH, the company behind Dior and Louis Vuitton, that converted their plants to make hand sanitiser for hospitals at no cost; and BrewDog, the UK brewer, that launched its own sanitiser for the NHS, with Anheuser-Busch, Pernod-Ricard, Bacardi, Tito and smaller distilleries doing the same in the US. In Asia, financial market operator HKEX organised an emergency relief donation of HK$10 million to local communities and NGOs.

Beyond the immediate crisis, there is still a lot for business to do. Despite the many great examples of “purpose-driven” businesses doing great things, half of the people recently surveyed by Edelman believe business is doing poorly, mediocre or completely failing at putting people before profits. Fortunately, the changes we have already seen in response to Covid-19 prove that a reset of our economic and social foundations is possible, and is our best chance to instigate stakeholder capitalism.

The time is now to make this a permanent fixture of the “new normal.”

In February, the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Longevity published The Health of The Nation: A Strategy for Healthier Longer Lives to deliver 5 extra years of healthy life expectancy while minimising heath inequalities – a government ambition enshrined in the current government manifesto.

Published just before the impact of the pandemic took hold, its recommendations are no less important, and indeed have become more pressing and resonant.

“The continued work of the APPG in seeking ways to improve the health of the nation and reduce health inequalities is so important to us all – now more than ever,” says Yvonne Sonsino, Global Co-Leader, Next Gen at Mercer.

One of the recommendations, a Business Coalition for a Healthier Nation, is now in the process of being set up, with leaders from insurance, banking and other sectors, and with the support of central government. The Coalition recognises that shaping the recovery and charting a new course for growth ahead will require greater collaboration between businesses, academia, government institutions and citizens themselves.

It places preventative health firmly at the centre to build up health and economic resilience. Indeed, arguably the even bigger crisis looming is the chronic disease “epidemic” – delays in cancer diagnosis and backlogs of cases have all increased with people fearful of seeing doctors and going to hospitals, only adding to the significant burden that existed before the pandemic. The recent OpenSafely study showed that people with obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and hypertension were much more likely to die from Covid-19, all mostly preventable diseases linked to social inequalities too.

A recent McKinsey report estimates that the cost of ill health was about 15% of global real GDP in 2017, and that the Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions will reduce global GDP by 3 to 8 % in 2020, concluding: “Long-term prevention and health promotion, which encompasses more than 70% of the benefits we identified, cannot simply be left to healthcare providers or healthcare systems. It is quite literally everybody’s business.”

In response, the Business Coalition is proposing, amongst other things, to develop a risk management framework for health and corresponding index to measure business contributions to health. It recognises the link between human health and planetary health too. As Colin Matthews, Chairman of EDF Energy, said: “There’ll be no healthy economy without a healthy population and a healthy planet.”

Indeed, health is where the climate change agenda was 10 years ago. Businesses involved in the Coalition argue we should be guiding investment and innovation decisions by Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) mandates like we do for climate change, applying them to healthy life expectancy and societal health; institutional investors should be thinking about the stranded asset risk of things that cause health risks, and businesses should report on health risks like they are doing increasingly on climate issues. Crucially, Coalition leaders say we need to prioritise capital for large-scale, long-term, sustainable investment in preventative health.

Andy Briggs, CEO of Phoenix Group, Co-Chair of the UK Longevity Council, and founding member of the Coalition, says: “We need to show how to make sustainability absolutely core in all businesses.”

This piece first appeared in, 23 July 2020.
Image by cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay

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