The call to address inequalities and vulnerabilities in the system was increasingly resounding in the past years, then got further loudened by the coronavirus pandemic. This told the private sector to respond by putting corporate social responsibility (CSR) further into action.

In his article titled “Reimagining Corporate Social Responsibility in the Era of COVID-19: Embedding Resilience and Promoting Corporate Social Competence” published in an open-access journal titled Sustainability, Jingchen Zhao, a professor at Nottingham Law School, stated that as the pandemic has amplified existing societal inequalities and pushed them to the forefront of public consciousness, businesses have inevitably been urged to reconsider the endurance of their current business models as well as their corporate strategies and effectiveness in the future.

“Companies are prioritizing issues such as governance frameworks, corporate objectives, possibilities for developing more sustainable and localized supply chains, and possibilities for working remotely,” he continued. “The pandemic has revived the debate surrounding CSR and is fast constructing a new landscape for the sustainable development of businesses.” 

CSR, as defined by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), is a management concept in which companies incorporate the addressing of social and environmental issues on their business operations and interactions with stakeholders. CSR issues can deal with environmental management, social equity, labor standards and working conditions, and good governance, among others.

“A properly implemented CSR concept can bring along a variety of competitive advantages, such as enhanced access to capital and markets, increased sales and profits, operational cost savings, improved productivity and quality, efficient human resource base, improved brand image and reputation, enhanced customer loyalty, better decision making, and risk management processes,” UNIDO said.

In the Philippines, CSR during the health and economic crisis involves support for the frontliners and vulnerable segments. Moreover, the significant contribution of the private sector to make a positive impact during the pandemic is done in collaboration with the government.

The partnership between the private and public sectors has been seen to somehow boost the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) testing in the country.

The private sector’s entrepreneurial mind-set and innovation capacities have been historically shown valuable in the country’s response to outbreaks and persistent communicable diseases in the past, according to an article published in the website of Health Systems Governance Collaborative, a group of practitioners, policy makers, academics, civil society representatives, agencies, decision-makers, and other citizens.

In addition, the Universal Health Care (UHC) Law also encompasses provisions and institutional mechanisms that allow contracting, paying, and linking the private sector with government facilities and networks of providers.

The collaborative, however, observed that these lessons were seemingly forgotten in the early weeks of COVID-19.

“After managing the first three cases confirmed in the end of January 2020, the Philippines was blindsided after local transmission was confirmed in March 2020. The country settled into thinking that there was adequate testing capacity with its national reference laboratory, the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine. Although 17 sub-national laboratories were upgraded and certified within three months, it was clearly not enough,” the group said.

“There was no concerted effort to tap the private sector in expanding COVID-19 testing. Private laboratories only started to be certified starting mid-April, and private sector support such as donations and innovations were not strategically organized,” it added.

Nevertheless, the group reported that in March last year, Asian Development Bank (ADB) stepped in and offered assistance to the Department of Health (DoH) to expand testing capacities. The ADB lend a hand to the publicly-owned Jose B. Lingad Memorial Hospital in building a testing facility, mobilizing international partners from China for the technology and tapping local private pharmaceutical company Unilab to help retrofitting the facility.

Meanwhile, the DoH crafted a four-pronged strategy with the technical support from ThinkWell Philippines, a health systems development organization, to likewise expand the testing in the country.

These efforts have pushed to mobilize private sector support, which led to the establishment of the Taskforce T3 (Test, Trace, Treat).

Partnering in pandemic response

On April 24, 2020, the Inter-Agency Task Force-National Task Force (IATF-NTF) and DoH, with support from the ADB, organized the Taskforce T3. Government agencies, international organizations, expert groups, and private corporations in the pharmaceuticals and health service industry joined forces for this initiative.

Such a multi-sectoral collaboration, according to the same article from Health Systems Governance Collaborative, proved to be an “effective catalyst.”

T3 private sector partners and their networks were quick to organize the needed resources for the testing centers, which included infrastructure, equipment, and supplies donations. Supply chain, logistics, and information technology professionals from the private sector were also tapped to enhance the complementary systems for testing.

“The very nature of both public and private sectors allows for a more synergistic response as they bring to bear their respective strengths and adapt these to the context of the greater challenges and needs confronted by our country, such as the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Health Systems Governance Collaborative said. “As the country continues to achieve UHC beyond this pandemic response, learnings from the success of this public-private partnership should be carried on.”

The collaboration between the public and private sectors continued in the COVID-19 vaccination program.

In December last year, the IATF-NTF, DoH, and a core group of companies including Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF), AC Health, Unilab, and Zuellig Pharma came together to host the COVID-19 Vaccine Logistics Summit.

“This summit is all about recognizing our challenges, learning from experts, mobilizing our resources and assets, and coordinating across government, LGUs, and the private sector. This is a public-private partnership,” said Guillermo Luz, chief resilience officer at PDRF, in a statement.

“We don’t think the government can do it alone. We don’t think the private sector can do it alone. This requires a very strong partnership as we have seen throughout the journey of T3 as we go from testing to distribution of supplies, PPEs, isolation, and treatment. Vaccination will be the same thing but even more complex,” he considered.

Private companies also collaborated to promote vaccine willingness among Filipinos through the Ingat Angat Bakuna Lahat campaign. The companies have contributed funds, expertise or talent, and time to support the national vaccination program.

“It was an unprecedented collaboration,” Margot Torres, managing director of McDonald’s Philippines and the Ingat Angat communication advocacy co-lead, said during the campaign launch in May. “Multiple companies, even competing brands, set aside their differences for the future of our country.” — Chelsey Keith P. Ignacio