The citizens of the world have been stunned by the ferocity and duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. They initially placed their faith in government as the sole institution capable of marshalling the resources to defeat this insidious enemy, but trust dissolved into disillusionment as the death toll and job losses mounted. As of January 2021, business emerged as the most trusted institution, the only one seen as both ethical and competent. Our most recent 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: A World in Trauma confirms business as the most trusted institution, widening its lead over government, especially in markets still in the throes of the pandemic. But overreliance on business as savior is an unstable and unsustainable formula that could explode for a private sector that promises too much and is then unable to meet the ever-expanding expectations of a traumatized public.
The fallout of the pandemic is persistent anxiety that has raised societal concerns to the same five-alarm urgency as financial worries. Respondents in more than half the nations we surveyed say the twin crises of mental health and job loss (both at 55 percent globally) are among the most profound negative consequences of the pandemic. The world has not shed its pandemic mindset, with most people fearful of resuming normal routines (only 16 percent willing to fly, 19 percent ready to take public transportation and 34 percent willing to return to the workplace). Vaccines have produced just an average five percent bump in return-to-life readiness. Nearly seven in 10 are concerned about a new outbreak around the corner. We will get little help from media in restoring confidence as the infodemic rages on; only 40 percent say traditional media is doing a good job at reducing misinformation.
The increase in inequality produced by the pandemic is reflected in a 17-point gap between the trust of the informed public and mass population, with double-digit gaps in 13 of the 14 countries studied and a record-tying 20 points for business. The perception that the wealthy have prospered in this pandemic is corroborated by a recent Financial Times article pointing out that the ranks of billionaires on the 2021 Forbes list have swelled by nearly 700 to more than 2,700, with billionaire wealth in India and the U.S. now accounting for nearly 20 percent of GDP. The possible conflation of business and billionaires threatens a populist backlash. Trust levels for informed public are rising but have yet to rebound for the mass population, a result of the stark contradiction of zooming stock markets and continued systemic health and economic inequities, disproportionately among Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous communities and people in lower income brackets.
The public is asking business to take on more societal challenges because they are tired of waiting for their public servants to get the job done. Trust in business has increased over government in 11 of the 14 nations since January 2021. Government trust has dropped from 65 percent last May (2020) to 58 percent today. Government is doing a good job on fiscal stimulus and monetary easing, but the public is judging government on the basis of vaccination. In India, government trust (77 percent) has strikingly dropped below business (82 percent). On eight classic aspects of the social contract, from healthcare to education to climate to addressing systemic inequalities—traditionally the realm of the public sector—business (37 percent) is doing better than government (35 percent) to get results. Business’ performance during the pandemic has caused an attitude shift; now 60 percent of respondents believe their countries will not overcome key challenges without the private sector’s involvement, with 33 percent saying the pandemic buoyed their belief in business.
Pressure is also coming for business from its own employees, who increasingly are translating high trust in their employer (77 percent) and CEO (72 percent) into expectations for public advocacy on issues from voting rights to wages. Nearly eight in 10 employees expect their employer to act on issues like vaccine hesitancy, climate change, the infodemic, racism and automation/re-training. Employees now are ranked as the most important stakeholder group (40 percent), more than three times higher than shareholders (12 percent). The priority list for CEOs has evolved and multiplied, with paying fair share of tax, reduction of carbon footprint and gender/racial pay equity at least twice as important as increasing share price or profits.
The coming months will be a crucible for business, with return to workplace and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) key tests. Government is punting on decisions, such as establishing standards for return to workplace, shifting the burden onto the private sector. The only way this can work is if business and government work together to establish rules of engagement for return to office, premised on upgrades in public transit sanitation and safety, flexible work hours and a policy for employees who refuse vaccination that is fair to all.
Business must lead on areas of comparative advantage—retraining, skills development, innovation—and it must continue to take meaningful action on societal issues from sustainability to racial justice, starting with getting its own house in order. But it must resist the temptation to be the A student doing all the work on the group project because government is slacking. As in The Odyssey, business must steer a course between the Scylla of complacency and the Charybdis of overreach. Navigating these roiling waters will surely require adjustments and course corrections, but there is no time to waste to help a shaken world regain its bearings.