A reflective essay by George Looker, Project Officer at the Wheeler Institute and a former MBA student at London Business School, graduating in 2020.
My intention this Easter was to work as a Project Officer with the Wheeler Institute in Bachok District, north-east Malaysia, on an initiative with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. I applied to this position eager to use my newly acquired skills from the London Business School MBA programme to support the launch of a humanitarian emergency field school. This would have been the culmination of my time at LBS and an opportunity to work with some of the most marginalised communities on the planet in the most challenging circumstances imaginable before returning to the workplace full-time.
Then the pandemic hit. First, we were going to run the project remotely, then it became clear that the project would have to be shelved. Deeply disappointed, and concerned about how I would keep busy during lockdown, I was then asked a cryptic question about my availability and ability to write blogs. I jumped at the opportunity, frankly because I was worried that I was going to have too much time on my hands, as well as intrigue about whether I’d be able to illustrate the Wheeler Institute’s point of view during a time when there was very little certainty about what the weeks and months ahead would have in store.
Since the start of April, I’ve had the privilege of a ringside seat for some of the most illuminating conversations relating to coronavirus during a moment where most of the world has been shrouded by dark uncertainty. While being a small part of the Wheeler Institute’s COVID-19 series has personally been a fulfilling opportunity, it also demonstrates the resilience of the community within London Business School and the Wheeler Institute, who are driven by their mission to develop, share and implement business expertise to solve development challenges. This couldn’t be more important at a time like this, and there’s been a remarkable ability to bring together some of the most informed academics, pioneering entrepreneurs, candid humanitarians and eminent thought-leaders not simply to bemoan the situation that we are confronted with in early 2020, but also to attempt to find the light and help shape a path forwards out of the tragedy that currently besets the world.
The conversations I’ve been charting as part of the COVID-19 series have brought people together from every corner of the planet, with insights and expertise honed from the widest-possible set of backgrounds. Elias Papaioannou and Rajesh Chandy, co-Directors of the Wheeler Institute, have masterfully threaded a multitude of conversations with an array of contributors that focus on the critical questions and challenges while also allowing for reflection and discussion based on the mission of the Wheeler Institute. It has included business-people like Nick Hughes, who has a unique ability to see how the African continent can overcome the crisis, through to world-renowned columnist and author Moisés Naím, who predicted how the coronavirus pandemic is going to impact the geopolitical landscape and Sergei Guriev who was able to provide insights on the impact of the pandemic on the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Indeed, much of the focus has been on how leaders need to react, with Amit Mehra urging a responsible approach and Jag Sheth saying that businesses are going to have to return to their ‘core purpose’ and serve society.
Responsibility has been a theme throughout the series, something that’s in the essence of the Wheeler Institute, and encapsulated in the conversations with Alex Edmans, who articulated how the pandemic should be a springboard for companies to use their comparative advantage and redeploy expertise to solve emerging challenges and Muhammad Yunus, who put forward the hopeful argument that the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for us to decide what sort of world we want to build.
Some of the conversations were incredibly troubling; Sebnem Kalemli-Ozcan described a situation where COVID-19 became responsible for ‘the biggest emerging market crisis ever’, Oriana Bandiera argued that coronavirus could set the emerging world back 20 years in the fight against extreme poverty, while Pierre-Oliver Gourinchas warned that coordinated, collective action was required to prevent the being a global catastrophe. Others tried to identify ways we could overcome the pandemic, with Oeindrila Dube looking at how lessons from the Ebola outbreak could be used to improve COVID-19 outcomes, Thulasiraj Ravilla sharing examples of how opportunities for innovation had been identified during the coronavirus crisis and Mushfiq Mobarak articulated how different approaches are needed in the developing world to overcome the virus.
There were contributors at the vanguard of supporting policymakers with responses to the crisis, with Andrea Galeotti using economic information theory to help prioritise testing and understand the costs of taking the wrong action during the pandemic, Paolo Surico developing novel approaches to analysing financial data, Imran Rasul investigating how people listen to and change their behaviour as a result of public health advice during a crisis, while Kamalini Ramdas described how the quantity of tests, rather than quality, could be the answer to COVID-19.
Looking at the post-pandemic world, Juliet Zhu used examples from China to show how the lockdown had accelerated changes to consumption patterns and employment. Moreover, Leonard Wantchekon looked ahead and asked how Africa should turn COVID-19 into an opportunity to prepare for the next pandemic. Other conversations highlight concerning ramifications of the pandemic, including damaging gender implications, discussed by Matthias Doepke, as well as potentially having positive long-term consequences, such as how Nick Binedell who thinks the pandemic could be an opportunity to reduce inequalities in South Africa.
Then there’s been the thought-provoking ‘Rethinking Capitalism’ series, where academics such as Harvard’s Rebecca Henderson has come together with Ioannis Ioannou to review the very fabric of our economy and looked at how the pandemic might be increasing the urgency with which companies need to be part of the solution when it comes to climate change and social unrest; while NYU Stern’s Thomas Philippon, the FT’s Martin Wolf and London Business School’s Hélène Rey provided analysis of how power dynamics and competition is impacting economies and consumers across the globe. Through this frame, the Institute has also looked hosted a discussion on the role of technology in the long term, with Daron Acemoğlu and Andrew Scott considering how technological achievement can lead to progress and how companies need to balance automation with the social benefits of providing employment.
Looking at the impact of the pandemic on the UK specifically, there’s been a spotlight on our domestic economy too. This brought together Julian Birkinshaw and John Van Reenen’s investigation of the implications of COVID-19 on firms in the UK, Andrew Scott and Paolo Surico’s assessment of UK debt before and after the crisis, while Hélène Rey and Paolo Surico looked at the required financial policy measures to support the UK economy. Andrea Galeotti and Flavio Toxvaerd examined how behavioural responses will impact the UK’s COVID-19 exit strategies, while Sir Andrew Likierman, Raffaella Sadun and Nicos Savva analysed the implications of the crisis on the NHS, with a range of measures being discussed that highlight the challenges ahead for the government here, especially with Brexit looming ever closer on the horizon.
For me, the most reassuring element of the work that’s been conducted by the Wheeler Institute’s COVID-19 series is the fact that we seem to have moved on from despair about how this crisis could be the worst yet, through to some optimistic points of view from Tony Wheeler about the future of travel, as well as Christopher Snyder’s belief that the benefits of accelerated vaccine development ‘are bigger than we can wrap our minds around’. That’s not to say we are out of the woods, as Ruben Durante noted in his conversation, fear caused by COVID-19 could affect voting behaviour, further deepening the anguish we might hold about the current crop of populist leaders we have across the globe. As we approach the end of July and the easing of lockdown measures, so too the tone has eased among our contributors, who have become increasingly positive about how and when the new post-pandemic world might emerge, albeit with the caveat that any positivity could evaporate overnight.
These conversations are only a small part of the work that the Wheeler Institute does. It has also been an honour for me to see how the Institute is proactively contributing to supporting developing economies through the pandemic, whether it be looking at Clinical Trial Disruptions, evaluating Public Health Messaging Through Online Advertising, measuring Gender Imbalance During Lockdown or assessing The Costs, Benefits, And Risks To Listed Firms as a result of COVID-19.
The myriad of disparate topics that have been brought together do not come together neatly and provide a single conclusion. However, despite taking place in a moment where there is more heat than there is light, the Wheeler Institute has attempted to provide some clarity and anchored discussions with empirical data and extensive research. Critically, it has focussed on how businesses can support people in frontier markets to move forwards. The pandemic will pass, but understanding and maximising the role that firms and business leaders can play in the developing world will remain a key objective throughout society; the fact this notion is being spearheaded by the Wheeler Institute should be a source of pride for those affiliated with LBS.
The vision of Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who have endowed the institute and influenced its guiding principles, has supported London Business School’s outward response to the pandemic and provided students and alumni with viewpoints and insights that reflect the conscientious nature of the LBS community. I’ve been struck by the focus on opportunities for collaboration in a divisive world, optimism when people seem stymied by the consequences of this horrific virus and a determination to find a way to progress forward when the natural tendency might be to regress and retreat. I’ve tried my best to codify this message for the Wheeler Institute over the last few months and I’ve been grateful to the team that’s supported my efforts. While going to Malaysia would have been a different challenge, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to work first-hand with the Wheeler Institute and I look forward to engaging with future output and seeing it thrive as part of the LBS community.