by Poku Osei, 18/05/20

As we begin to rebuild our lives, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will reshape the nation’s economy, industries, and our society in a fundamental way.

The disease has had an impact on all lives – black, white, rich and poor. But it has particularly reminded us that inequality kills. As one doctor put it, ‘pandemics are like guided missiles, attacking those who are poor, disenfranchised and have underlying health problems’. COVID-19 has certainly not been different.

As I write, the disease continues to decimate the lives of people living in poorer communities, simply because they are over-represented in frontline jobs, living in overcrowded housing or holding a less secure employment contract. Regardless of their will, their working and living conditions make it harder to abide by social distancing guidelines. In the UK, these people have disproportionately been from ethnic minority backgrounds, as the Office for National Statistics report revealed last Thursday. It is a stark reminder that the poor indeed die young!

On the other hand, even though young people are considered less physically at risk from coronavirus, it is important to note that they are some of the most vulnerable to its financial aftershocks. The ONS showed that 408,000 people in the 18-24 age group are unemployed, while data from the Resolution Foundation research indicates that the crisis could push a further 600,000 young people into unemployment unless major new support is provided. In addition to this, there is also the reality that tens of thousands of internships, work experience opportunities and entry-level employment roles could be cut for those new to the job markets – depending on how we choose to respond.

Overall, the impact of COVID on the business community cannot be underestimated. Currently, the UK Government is covering the employment costs of more than 7 million people through its furlough scheme – something which is being perceived as masked unemployment. Nationally, it is predicted that a second wave of an outbreak and lockdown could push approximately 1.1 million businesses into insolvency. In the South West, only 16% of businesses believe they will be able to cope if the crisis lasts 6 months.

In many businesses, this unique set of challenges has led to one response from executives: ‘Yes, we understand the inequalities that ethnic minorities and inexperienced young people are facing, but now is not the time to talk about diversity and inclusion. We need to protect the essentials first and keep our business afloat.’ This is a mistake.

Yes, the response to COVID-19 has created an economic crisis, but at the core of that is a people crisis and organisations that recognise the latter stand a better chance of managing and recovering from the former. In other words, what companies do to make the leap from bad to good, or good to great, will start with getting the right people on the bus. And I say this not least because:

● Business leaders will need the cultural competence within their teams to deal with a returning workforce affected in a multitude of ways; experiencing new demands of balancing work and care with feelings of grief, loss, isolation or ‘otherness’, and a need for connection

● Senior management teams will need diversity of thought to accurately assess the political, economic, social and technological opportunities available, to develop effective strategies for growth

● Middle management will need a diverse frontline workforce to show empathy and offer reassurance to build trust with customers from various backgrounds who may fear to return to habits that were ‘normal’ before COVID-19

● Supervisors will need the intercultural communication skills to manage teams and foster the sense of shared mission through teleconferencing and messaging apps

● The general workforce will also need the diversity to understand the social sensitivities and impact of the social inequalities that have been magnified by the pandemic to build a sense of shared belonging

It would be particularly shortsighted for companies to deprioritise the recruitment of young people based on their inexperience in the world of work. They are the generation of digital natives and subsequently represent the architects to plan the new building for the fourth industrial revolution even as the firefighters work to save the old one.

The best leaders and organisations will recognise this fact about young people and minority candidates. Some will do so because it will be the advantage that helps them sprint away from competitors. Others will see that the profound social and economic transformation needed as a result of the pandemic – similar in scale to that of the Second World War – cannot be achieved by any Government or any local authority alone.

The question, therefore, cannot be whether we can address the post-COVID economic crisis and provide inclusive growth at the same time, but rather, whether we can afford not to do so. We cannot jump out of the frying pan of the pandemic and into exacerbation of inequality and social immobility. We risk social unrest and rioting becoming a feature of our cities and further disrupting business and society. We must integrate the solutions to both crises into a coherent response.

At Babbasa, we believe that it is during times of great difficulty that we need to draw on the power of imagination. To mark our recent Queen’s Award For Enterprise, we have launched two initiatives to support young people living in Bristol’s ethnically diverse communities in inner-city Bristol. They include:

1) An urgent appeal to support those affected by the pandemic, in the short term.

2) A vision to support at least one person from each household to secure a median salary job by 2030. We believe that this vision will not only lift individuals out of poverty but also, enable them to support their families, serve as role models in their community and contribute to the growth of the Bristol economy in the long term. We believe the ripple effect of this vision for equality, particularly in the aftermath of this pandemic, would be profound.

In Bristol, Mayor Marvin Rees is already providing the needed framework to support such a vision by committing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and pioneering the innovative One City Approach. I would, therefore, like to throw out a challenge. First – for Bristol’s businesses to recruit or provide a work placement opportunity for at least one talented person from an ethnic minority or low-income community by the end of 2021 to support an inclusive recovery from COVID. Second – for Bristol City Office to include the challenge in the next iteration of the One City Plan, and WECA, to be explicit on a similar commitment in other combined authority areas. Third – for policymakers, investors, academics, community partners, and philanthropists, to work with us on the 10-year vision.

Inclusive recovery programmes should be at the heart of economies that are working towards sustainable growth and increased resilience beyond COVID. As we rebuild, we have to open our eyes to both the risks and opportunities on the horizon. What we do now will not only reshape our economy and society, it will also reshape humanity’s future. Making a fairer, inclusive and sustainable recovery is the only bridge to a more resilient future.