As you know, one half of the Crane&Matten team saw its early years in Germany. ‘Schwein gehabt', to ‘having had swine’ (literally translated) in German just means ‘having been lucky’. So, how lucky are we then with this new outburst of Swine Flu?
Well, as long as we are living far enough away from Mexico, do not travel, or spend time at airports – indeed, ‘Schwein gehabt’! But it’s quite remarkable to see the social and political implications of what is going on. Loads of things spring to mind.
First, the pandemic shows the nature of globalization. It transcends borders; it defies economic, social and political boundaries; and it is a threat – in theory – to the world in general. British tourists returning from holidays in Cancun, French businesspeople coming home from Mexico City, migrant workers at the US/Mexican border – they all are potential disasters in waiting. What can national governments or health authorities do? Not too much. President Obama hinted at this in his 100-days-in-office speech. But unless he closes the border to Mexico and shuts down flights from there – there is precious little local authorities can really do. Other than monitoring the disaster.
Second, with the threat of loosing lives, the pandemic immediately raises ethical issues. Yesterday, on the Canadian Radio CBS, the representative of the farm worker’s union was interviewed. Without Mexican labor, Canadian agriculture would come to a grinding hold. So letting these workers in is an economic imperative. At the same time, Toronto still remembers vividly the SARS pandemic, and the effect it had on the city (Toronto being one of the first and worst hit places by SARS back then – due to its significant Chinese population). So how do we deal with Mexicans coming here? Should they not come? What is their responsibility in containing the virus? These questions gave the union representative some headaches. First signs of discrimination and incrimination of Mexican workers are already emerging in Canada, according to the radio program.
Finally, what can governments really do? Crane&Matten have worked and written (not at least in the Business Ethics textbook) about the ‘Risk Society’ thesis by the sociologist Ulrich Beck. The key solution here seems to be a vaccine. Created by who? Yes, pharmaceutical companies. But even they need at least six months to develop a vaccine. So it all depends on business here to provide the solution. Pharmaceutical multinationals have the research and knowledge base to address this pandemic. But they would only really do so if they can make a profit on the drug. So here is the dilemma: yes, business can produce a great benefit for society. Pharmaceutical products have changed our lives for the better and, in fact, saved millions of lives. But are there the right incentives for these companies? We all remember how the pharmaceutical company Bayer was forced to sell its anti-Anthrax medicine for basically nothing to the US government, when the Anthrax scare hit the country in the early 2000s. Why would any company be motivated to invest millions of dollars developing a medicine, which they would not be allowed to sell profitably once it’s on the market and able to address a social need at this magnitude? So much to what Beck calls the 'organized irresponsibility'...
Don’t get us wrong. We are not defending the pharmaceutical industry. We just want to point the spotlight to the fact that the solution to this, yet another, pandemic lies in the private sector. And to make the private sector live up to its potential and its responsibilities towards the greater good of society is still an unresolved issue. This crisis shows yet again: to have corporations working just to enhance shareholder value is indeed a ‘dumb idea’ – as even the late Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric and poster boy of the shareholder value ideology) admitted. For the time being then, let’s hope we stay lucky. Not getting swine flu. As we said, ‘Schwein gehabt’ is the motto of the day.