The COVID-19 pandemic from the perspective of European SME

Dr. Dirk Kreder just recently joined the ALDE Individual Members. He is a member of the Free Democrats Party and municipal councillor in his hometown Holzkirchen, Upper Bavaria. As a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of four companies, he gives an insight into the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).

The ongoing pandemic raises many questions. Trivial ones and a lot of difficult ones. Very hard trade-offs are being made on our behalf by elected officials, and it is worth looking at those trade-offs, challenging what is justified and what is not, and use the learnings as preparation for the next pandemic which will come in just a few years.

As the CEO of four companies, in three European countries, each affected in different ways by the pandemic,while initiating work on COVID responses (development and regulation of tests, a vaccine, and one treatment) and as a liberal, I find what is happening today extremely challenging from both personal and business perspectives.

From the personal perspective, I note my daughter preparing for her career-deciding high school diploma during lockdown with a terribly inadequate digital infrastructure, another daughter losing 60 – 70% of her income from her job with a major airline, a COVID-19 case in my immediate family and 2 weeks of complete isolation with friends leaving food at the front door, dramatic decline of revenue for some of my companies, an inability to travel, inability to socialise, the list could go on and on. None of these were easy to deal with. 

While the response to the pandemic by businesses and governments is unprecedented and will likely succeed in months to years, what appears much less convincing is the level of preparation in most countries in Europe. Just to share a few (of my personal) conclusions from a business perspective:

Firstly, the world has developed a well-oiled mechanism to deal with the ever-changing influenza virus. Every year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) isolates the most important strains in Asia and, by May or so, all major vaccine developers receive those strains from WHO and develop vaccines. Not counting occasional hiccups, this works flawlessly and, by September, you can get the vaccine from a nurse or physician. Yet, there are positions like what I recently heard from my brother: “I have never had the flu, so why should I get a flu shot?” Science and politics should urgently improve our populations’ understanding of the incredible value vaccinations bring to our societies. Our economy cannot afford the enormous costs of avoidable epidemics. For one, more businesses should consider for example offering flu shots to their employees.

Secondly, our decision-makers in charge have done a mediocre job at best of actually listening to science including reactions severely impacting our civil rights. As pandemic will happen in the future, it can no longer be the case that no workable emergency plan exists and that decision makers – for example, leaders of the German federal states – come to different conclusions for their states in similar situations. What bugs me most as a virologist and immunologist by training is this: why has the Swedish model been subject to ridicule by most media and politicians outside Sweden? Instead of shutting down our economies and lives, we could have taken a more serious look at Sweden, and we would have found that most of the tragic fatalities were due to early mistakes that were quickly corrected. Today, Sweden is doing quite well despite no lockdown.

Thirdly, despite the fact that this is the first time many people heard of coronavirus: this is not the scariest virus, not even close (you may want to watch ‘93 Days’ on Netflix). The world very narrowly avoided pandemics from the SARS and MERS viruses, both respiratory disease-causing viruses from the same family and has learned… exactly nothing. Germany ran out of protective gear within days, which is nothing short of embarrassing and completely unacceptable. How is it possible that a moderately mortal virus, expected to arrive at some point, shuts our economies down and allows for almost complete revocation of our civil liberties? I can only come to one conclusion: ignorance and poor preparation, a less than effective European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and politicians who panic easily. 

The silver lining: we will likely come out of this situation quite soon. Thanks to an unprecedented effort of mostly private sector efforts fueled by enormous amounts of taxpayer’s money. Never before have so many companies engaged in a pandemic response, been afforded so much public money with regulators lowering the burden by so much. It is an easy prediction that by the end of 2020, we should have one or two vaccines approved and by mid-2021, maybe four or five. Thanks to the private sector, we will also likely have two or three effective therapies in due time. This has never happened before in such a short timeframe and is a great achievement. At the same time, we, our children and grandchildren will pay dearly for it.

Finally, Europe has to be much better prepared when the next virus hits.

Dirk Kreder

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