Pulse Check: How International Businesses are Reacting to COVID-19

The emergence of COVID-19 caused an unprecedented disruption to the global economy and world trade. On May 8, 2020 Meridian brought together trade leaders and executives from multinational corporations to explore how businesses are responding to the multitude of government policies and consumer trends related to the pandemic. The virtual Insights@Meridian briefing addressed aspects of global trade, supply chains, employment and worker health.

Moderated by Brad Knox, Meridian Trustee and Senior Vice President & Counsel, Federal Relations, Aflac, the program included the following panelists:

Leila Afas, Director of International Public Policy, Toyota Motors North America

Tiffany Atwell, Global Government & Industry Affairs, Corteva Agriscience

Fred Humphries, Corporate Vice President of U.S. Government Affairs, Microsoft

Mark Isakowitz, Vice President of U.S. Government Affairs and Public Policy, Google

Several key points emerged from the conversation:

  1. AN OPPORTUNITY TO RE-ESTABLISH FREE TRADE.As international businesses adapt to the challenges COVID-19 presents, the majority of global leaders agree that putting up barriers to trade is not a solution. While gaps in supply chains and trade flows have been exposed by this crisis, many of these concerns have been long-standing, and the pandemic may provide an opportunityfor policymakers to address these problems. A willingness to re-vamp ineffective areas of international trade will ensure improved global policies and could establish an even stronger free trade market.
  2. FREE DATA FLOWS VS. DIGITAL SOVEREIGNTY.As free trade agreements are both created and updated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they must incorporate thorough chapters on digital policyas a tool to support free flows of data. When the world begins its return to ‘normalcy,’ many countries will likely assess all the essential pieces of infrastructure they did not have during the crisis and develop plans on how to bolster these areas moving forward. During these months of ‘social distancing,’ it has become clear that digital services and technology have become essential critical infrastructure services. Digital sovereignty is important for countries’ inclusive growth, and national security should also be protected through digital cyberspace.
  3. SUPPLY CHAINS NEED WORK. The private sector will immediately work to patch up any holes in supply chains that were exposed as a result of the pandemic. Supply chain resilience has been, and will continue to be, a key to the continuation of international trade and business. This resilience comes from effective decision-making by business leaders in adapting to the challenges of the time. Many of these adaptations to supply chains following the crisis will likely include overall diversification as well as intentional moves away from China.
  4. A POST-COVID WORLD.As states begin to re-open in various phases, discussions have increased regarding how the ‘new’ U.S. and global workforce might look. Businesses are strategizing the return to in-person work by preparing physical spaces to adhere to WHO and CDC guidelines, as well as prepping workers for the ‘new normal’ that will build upon lessons learned over the course of managing this crisis in order to support the highest levels of productivity. While the private sector has faced a challenge in aligning their re-opening efforts with the individual policies of 50 different states (with even more to consider in the international arena), a commitment remains towards a central goal: economic recovery.
  5. WORKERS MUST BE PRIORITIZED. Workers’ willingness to adapt to changing circumstances has kept business alive throughout the pandemic. While quick-thinking is certainly valuable in moments of crisis, planning and preparedness will be central as we work to navigate a post-COVID-19 world. Businesses have been and must continue to retain their workers as well as stay committed to their mission. The challenges faced in the last few months have demonstrated the importance of the private sector dedicating themselves to supporting human capital and communities, both through CSR efforts and overall business practices.

Insights@Meridian and other Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement programs serve to provide the international diplomatic corps with a better understanding of U.S. domestic policies from multiple perspectives. For more information, please visit meridian.org/diplomacy.

To read more on Meridian's response to COVID-19, click here.

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