By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran, Special Features Assistant Editor

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was as if the world changed overnight. With its impact felt in every part of human life, society needed to make expansive changes to ensure the safety of the population, from how they work down to how they got their food.

To help the business community grasp the extent of these changes, BusinessWorld Virtual Economic Forum held Fireside Chats with experts in various fields to talk about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the world is reshaping in response.

First and foremost, addressing the question on everyone’s minds, Dr. Jean-Antoine Zinsou, country general manager of Sanofi Pasteur Philippines, talked about the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Sanofi is among the companies pursuing work in COVID-19 vaccine development with two candidate vaccines. With a partnership with GSK, Sanofi is developing an antigen (the protein that stimulates the body’s immune response against the virus), based on recombinant DNA technology. GSK meanwhile is contributing an adjuvant, an ingredient added to enhance the immune response, which reduces the amount of vaccine protein required per dose and improves the chances of delivering an effective vaccine that can be manufactured at scale.

The second COVID-19 vaccine candidate, in partnership with Translate Bio, is pursuing a clinical-stage messenger RNA (mRNA) biotechnology company.

Yet, Dr. Zinsou pointed out that the vaccine development is only half the battle.

“Yes, we can develop the vaccine and it can be ready for registration and market authorization. But if there is no manufacturing capacity, this is useless,” he said.

“This is why, for Sanofi, for this candidate vaccine, in parallel with development, we are increasing our production capacity by a significant level because we aim to produce roughly one billion doses by the end of next year.”

He further noted that the world has more than a hundred candidate vaccines in development, but all of them need to pass through rigorous processes to guarantee their safety and efficacy.

Meanwhile, Felino A. Palafox, Jr., principal architect — urban Planner of Palafox Associates, echoed the sentiment, adding that there is a great opportunity for the Philippines to right the wrongs of the past and build a better future for all Filipinos.

“As Churchill has said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’,” he said.

Mr. Palafox talked about how Philippine cities are being reshaped by the crisis, and he mentioned the growing trend of revisiting plans and programs that were overlooked and ignored in the past, such as those proposing for more walkable bike-friendly cities with more open public spaces.

He pointed out that pandemics of the past were instrumental in enacting huge changes to how cities were built, from improving sewerage and water sanitation in Paris during its cholera outbreak, and creating central parks in the United States.

To create such changes in Metro Manila, Mr. Palafox proposed structural audits of the megacity and retrofitting structures to better equip cities for incoming hazards such as the expected increase in the number of super-typhoons caused by climate change.

The collision of the real and the virtual
Accelerated digitalization has been one of the most obvious impact of COVID-19. Cezar P. Consing, president and CEO of Bank of the Philippine Islands, noted that digital transactions in the Philippines surged with the outbreak.

“The thesis that COVID accelerated cashless society is true. It was all very slow at first, very gradual, incremental growth. All of a sudden we saw daily digital enrollments from our customer base to the tune of 20 thousand to 30 thousand a day. Because of all of these enrollments, more than half of our 8-9 million customers are now enrolled digitally,” he said.

Transactions with physical banking branches have come down and so have the use of ATMs, leaving banks to consider and reevaluate their network strategies. Digital transformation has reached a tipping point, and Mr. Consing said that things are not likely to go back to how things were before COVID-19 hit.

“For the longest time there were a couple of factors that prevented the growth of digital and online banking. First of all, it was the cost of the mobile phone. Smartphones are very expensive, especially several years ago. But over time this has come down,” he said.

“Second, the digital rails haven’t been built yet. In our case at BPI, we decided to start investing in digital three or four years ago. You take those two factors and the fact that the Filipino is so adept at using these new technologies, and so prepared to try them out, and this is why we are seeing this massive growth in cashless banking.”

James Matti, head of Willis Towers Watson Philippines, in his talk highlights how this sense of collaboration and community is evolving in the workplace. Their data show that in the nine months of the pandemic, more than half or 63% of companies responded with agility, redeploying and reskilling their workers to support other functions and focus on their business.

What’s more companies have started to lean into the broader ecosystem, with 20% of companies either borrowing or lending talent to other organizations to either bring their businesses up to speed or help out businesses who have low capacity.

“People are committed to companies that have shown empathy and compassion during the pandemic. Companies who have not laid off and took care of their people at the height of the crisis,” he pointed out.

Collaboration between the public and private sectors is included in creating this new world. To talk about the economic side of things, Francisco Dakila, Jr., deputy governor of the Monetary and Economics Sector at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, noted that the uncertainty created by COVID-19 has left many people uncertain about their economic prospects.

“There is still elevated uncertainty because of the COVID-19 cases, and that’s something that we are seeing globally. If we look at economic prospects, we are still seeing recovery next year, but due mostly to that uncertainty, multilateral organizations such as the International Monetary Fund have moderated or downgraded their outlook for 2021,” he said during his talk.

In the Philippines, there is still considerable fear and hesitation on the part of both consumers and the financial sector. Mr. Dakila said that the BSP has so far done its part to kickstart the economy back up, reducing its policy rates to the lowest it has been historically, as well as reducing reserve requirements for universal and commercial banks, but unless consumer confidence recovers true economic recovery will not come.

“Gaining confidence really means that the public should be able to go out and not be afraid of contracting COVID. That is the most important part. Once that confidence builds in, we can expect economic activity begin to pick up,” he said.

Satish Shankar, regional managing partner of Bain & Company Asia-Pacific, highlighted how the private sector have changed in the light of the pandemic and how it can do its part to recover consumer confidence.

Mr. Shankar noted the key differences between the companies that can successfully take advantage of the pandemic from companies that will struggle in its wake: an ability to predict and anticipate change ahead of time; an adaptability that will allow them to course-correct depending on the situation; and resilience, the ability to withstand further shocks to their system.

Consumers have become more discerning and aware of bad actors in the market, he said, and that to survive in this new world companies should reimagine their culture and purpose, putting sustainability at the heart of their business model, and create strategies that would allow for the agility needed to make the right decisions.