HBS Fights Back against COVID-19

Tanishq Bhalla, Contributor

Tanishq Bhalla (MBA ’21) reflects on the “Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic” symposium and shares key takeaways from the day. 

“This is really a horrific time we are in.”

Ken Chenault (JD ’76), former CEO of American Express, quickly set the stage for Harvard Business School’s “Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic” Symposium. He confirmed a sobering reality: the world is facing a crisis unlike any.

There has been a strong sense of confusion and helplessness amongst us students. Our lives as students of HBS have changed more than we could have ever guessed from just a short while ago. Amidst the chaos, HBS administration has done its best to stay true to its mission of “educating leaders who make a difference in the world.” With this mission in mind, the decision was made to set aside the case studies for a day and host a full-day symposium dedicated to COVID-19 and its global effects. Of course, hosting this symposium in our beloved Klarman Hall was not an option, but the school quickly leveraged its new-found expertise with Zoom to orchestrate a virtual symposium.

COVID-19 has become not only a public health problem but also an economic and ethical problem. With the diversity of the challenges our society faces in mind, HBS designed six sessions with six experts to educate and discuss topics including the global economy, public health, crisis management, and supply chain. Given the importance of these knowledge domains, HBS recorded the symposium and made it available for public viewing.

Here are some of the main lessons from the symposium.

Business leaders do not need to be health experts in order to have an impact

Ashish Jha (MD ’97, MPH ’04), the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, jumped at the opportunity to be a presenter for this symposium. He, and many of his public health colleagues, have felt vilified by economists for leading the public recommendations to continue shelter-in place policies. However, he believes this is the necessary struggle we need to go through in order to prevent cases from rising uncontrollably again, causing another long shutdown with even further economic consequences. 

Dr. Jha believes business leaders and the private sector need to play a significant role in helping fight COVID-19. “How are we going to implement 500,000 tests per day?” (Many have touted that this is the number of tests we need before reopening the economy.) He emphasizes that these are the types of things that we need the expertise from the business sector to help implement because the government does not have the capability to do so on its own. Furthermore, you do not need to be a healthcare company to help with such initiatives; for example, Hilton is providing housing to health care workers so that they can keep themselves isolated from their families and better run testing centers. Our country is experiencing an “all-hands-on-deck” roll call with this crisis, and leaders running companies big or small have the ability to help—whether by innovating, supporting, or sympathizing in ways unseen before. 

It is time to set aside rivalries and work together

All New York hospital systems have in effect become one operating system with many different locations. Apple and Google are partnering on COVID-19 contact tracing technology. General Motors and Ford share plans on how to convert manufacturing plants to focus on building ventilators. These are just a few examples of all sorts of unexpected collaborations that have popped up amongst “rivals” during the pandemic.

But according to Chenault, this is still not enough. “We need more of a collective focus and more partnerships to be formed. I would like to see even more innovation through partnerships from corporations.” As the country shifts its efforts to re-opening and preventing a second wave, these partnerships will become even more important to adjust to the new normal.

 As business leaders, there is a lot of value we can provide by connecting diverse groups of individuals to facilitate change. Chenault articulated his own efforts from co-founding Stop the Spread (STS) which has rallied over 1,500 business leaders across 300 companies to drive efforts around COVID-19. Chenault described one unlikely partnership that had formed from this coalition—Ventec Life Systems and General Motors. Even with no manufacturing or healthcare experience, Chenault brought relentless passion to get involved in the COVID-19 fight, leading to these two companies building ventilators at one of GM’s facilities.

Our skillset as general managers may have no greater value then it does today to bring together and lead more groups to fuel the change needed to fight this pandemic.

 Never let a good crisis go to waste

Even though COVID-19 is new, crisis management is not. Juliette Kayyem (AB ’91, JD ’95), Professor at Harvard Kennedy School, walked us through the five stages of crisis management: protection, prevention, (the crisis), response, adaptive recovery, and resiliency. Currently, most nations around the world find themselves in the response stage with eyes on how to move towards adaptive recovery. As we may have to live through this cycle multiple times due to the threat of multiple waves, nations like the USA have much to learn around protection and prevention from nations that have thus far been more successful in stopping the spread of the virus.

Multinational companies are already leveraging lessons from their operations that were hard hit in China to best prepare for the virus as it reaches other countries they operate in. Revathi Advaithi, CEO of Flex, spoke to this firsthand since she dealt with the virus’s effects on Flex’s Chinese operations in January. Through the process of re-opening these factories, she and her team created a comprehensive re-opening and prevention playbook that detailed steps each facility should incorporate to re-open and best contain the spread of the virus. This playbook has helped her organization get 90% of their Chinese workforce back and working in as safe an environment as possible with measures such as regular temperature scans and PPE (personal protective equipment) available for all employees. Now, they turn to leveraging this playbook to get them back up and running in Italy.

The new world will look different

Dani Rodrik (AB ’79), Economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, speculates that this crisis will lead to many economic and fiscal policies being revisited and changed. There has already been an unprecedented monetary and fiscal response of trillions of dollars, including actions like sending checks directly to Americans. Now after this first wave of checks sent, policies like Universal Basic Income will start to see more light among many others.

Healthcare is also in for a major change. Robert Huckman (PhD ’01), Faculty Chair of the Health Care Initiative, hopes that the urgency of the crisis will lead to a more flexible U.S. health care system in the future. This could involve quicker adoption of new technologies like telemedicine, broader scope of practice for non-physician providers, and greater coordination across provider organizations. In the pandemic, we have seen many liberties granted around testing locations (i.e., parking lots) and who conducts these tests. Americans will question if we should again restrict these liberties once the pandemic is over or if more healthcare services should continue to be allowed outside the hospital and performed by workers with lower qualifications. 

As far as recovery expectations for the economy, we should be cautious of expecting a V-shaped rebound. Carmen Reinhart, Professor of International Finance at the Harvard Kennedy School, believes we should be preparing for more of an elongated U-shaped recovery. “A big reason for this is that the progression of the pandemic has not been synchronous worldwide.” We have a global economy that is very dependent on the movement of people and objects across many countries. Unfortunately, this means that the local economy may struggle to rebound even after the virus itself has been eliminated from here.

A jam-packed day of sessions left us much better informed of the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis and the important role business leaders have in the coming months. However, there remained an elephant in the room that an RC student was forward enough to ask Dr. Jha: “What is the likelihood of school being in-person in the fall?” Dr. Jha, hesitant to take a firm stance, instead focused on two realities that need to be present for classes to resume in their pre-COVID form. “We need the amount of active infections to be really, really low or for high immunity across the community.” Alas, it was not a very revealing answer but the most a health expert can credibly say about the state of the world months away.   

Regardless of the situation come fall, we have found ourselves with more time on our hands than we expected. Whether we use this time to fortify our own skills, give back to the community, or reflect more on career goals, I encourage us all to use our time with intentionality. After all, one day we will all be asked, “How did you spend your time during the COVID-19 crisis?”

If you are interested in getting involved, here is a short list of nonprofits operating at both global and national levels in the fight against COVID-19:


UN Foundation for the World Health Organization COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund (www.unfoundation.org)

International Medical Corps (www.internationalmedicalcorps.org)

International Rescue Committee (www.rescue.org)


American Red Cross (www.redcross.org)

CDC Foundation (www.cdcfoundation.org)

Feeding America (www.feedingamerica.org)

World Central Kitchen (www.wck.org)

Off Their Plate (https://offtheirplate.org/)

Tanishq Bhalla (MBA ’21) grew up in Boston, MA and has primarily worked in product and business development roles in the B2B technology space. Prior to joining HBS, Tanishq worked at Cisco Systems for four years where he specialized in various technologies across the Cybersecurity and Cloud Computing landscape. Tanishq graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) with a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering.