The dean of Harvard’s school of public health has called on companies to put public health professionals on their boards and in their top executive ranks to manage a pandemic threat that could hang over businesses for years.
“I think what Covid does is lay bare just how essential it is to be prepared for man-made and natural disasters, and our economic resilience depends on being prepared. Public health plays a key role in being prepared,” Michelle Williams told the Financial Times.
Her appeal was being heard by the large companies which have sought to tap the university’s public health expertise during the coronavirus crisis, she said: “I think the penny has dropped because unlike some of the other crises we’ve had, this one is enduring. This one will be with us for a while. It has allowed the C-suite to realise this is not just an acute moment.”
Harvard’s school of public health has struck partnerships with several companies across the entertainment, manufacturing and banking sectors, working with companies as diverse as AMC Theaters, the cinema chain, and Snap-On Tools.
“That’s allowed us to realise quite how important this is to take this moment . . . to develop an enduring relationship with the business community,” Dean Williams said. Harvard has seen strong appetite for a course it is launching this autumn to help senior executives integrate public health principles in their businesses, she added.
Other academic and medical institutions have seen similar demand from the private sector, with airlines and hoteliers striking partnerships with the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic advising McDonald’s on how to operate its restaurants safely and Salesforce sharing advice with CVS Health on returning to workplaces safely.
Tyson Foods, Stanley Black & Decker and Royal Caribbean are among the companies to have announced new chief medical officer positions since the pandemic began, while Boston Properties enlisted an expert on improving conditions in “sick buildings” from Harvard’s school of public health.
“It’s important for academics and the private sector to come together and stay together,” Dean Williams said. “In the business sector there’s a lot of understanding of data . . . but where business falls short is in understanding behavioural and risk modelling,” she added: “Putting those together is a more holistic and powerful approach.”
Dean Williams said companies had become increasingly attuned to the importance of public health because of the opioid and obesity crises that have struck Americans in recent years.
“It’s now clear to companies that . . . having a healthy employee community is critical. In flyover states some companies can’t find enough people who are well enough, able enough to work,” she said.