The entire world, and not just the global economy, was not ready for what the coronavirus has done. I think no one knew that something which happened in China in January could hit the entire planet with such force and in such degree, and leave consequences which are even more devastating than those brought about by the 2008 financial crisis, says dr Ronald Seeliger, General Director of Hemofarm and the president of the German-Serbian Chamber of Commerce for Novi magazin.
Today, seven weeks after the pandemic was announced, what are your main impressions when talking about the coronavirus?
When it comes to life, the main impression is that one virus has literally stopped the whole world and brought our lives back to factory settings. It took away most of the things that make life beautiful and reminded us that we took many things for granted. Now, we talk about socializing, travelling, culture and sports with sorrow… not to mention the personal tragedies. However, it has also brought with it a flood of various conspiracy theories that spread through Social Media in waves. Sometimes it seems to me that the coronavirus has done two things: reduced our needs to those primary ones, and also brought a big worm of suspicion about anything and everything. While I might find the latter funny, the first is quite serious.
When it comes to the functioning of the economy, the coronavirus has brought us tremendous insecurity in every field, and some shifts are already happening in the global economy as well as in global politics. Some analysts go so far as to claim that the pandemic has caused tectonic disturbances that will have a lasting effect on the shifts in global power. During the first few weeks, we saw that the corona has brought back some states as powerful political and economic cells. Borders between states have become increasingly important again, and they (states) have turned to themselves and their capacities in responding to the virus. I am still not sure whether the “economic nationalism” led to the “political” or vice versa.
What do the current estimates say, which sectors of the world economy will be most affected by the current pandemic? Very soon after the crisis broke out, the global and domestic experts came up with a prediction about the most vulnerable sectors of the economy, has that changed anything?
The situation is serious and, unfortunately, there is almost no doubt that the sector of small and medium-sized enterprises will suffer the most, not only in Serbia but all over the world. When it comes to branches of the economy, hospitality and tourism, as well as (air) transport, the footwear and apparel industry will receive the biggest blow. We have already seen that even large companies, giants like Adidas, sought the help of their governments and international financial institutions. It is not just that the costs they incur in leasing retail stores and the salaries of tens of thousands of employees are large, but also that these companies have huge sponsorship contracts that they are now unable to capitalize on due to the lack of sports and other events. There is a good chance that this crisis will hit the global economy more strongly than it did during the 2008 financial crisis. The ultimate result will depend largely on whether autumn will be better when it comes to health and provide an opportunity for recovery, or if we will have a rerun of the situation. For the economy this was a “corona tsunami“, and now it is up to us to figure out the faults of the system and how to respond quickly.
How has Hemofarm, a company which you have led for the last eight years, faced the current pandemic?
Look, we had to work even harder to ensure the stable supply of medicine in these unstable times. Imagine how demanding it just was – to ensure stability in instability. In short, our main task was to make sure there was enough medicine so the patients who need therapies wouldn’t worry. By working 24/7 we managed to eliminate that one concern. And I am not talking only about Hemofarm, but about the entire Stada, within which we operate.
I have an amazing team in Hemofarm which responded in several directions already in early March: it additionally raised the level of security at the factories so that the virus couldn’t enter the operations, and provide all necessary conditions so that 2,000 employees can work at maximum capacity so that hundreds of employees which do not work in manufacturing, packaging and logistic could work from home. Can you imagine that level of organization? And how it all looks like when you raise the level of protection in the pharmaceutical industry where the hygienic standards are super high? But it was because we acted in a timely and minutely, we succeeded in stopping the virus stopping us.
This means that the regular supply of medicine was your priority during this period?
Our task was to provide sufficient medicines, but also to help others who were on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus. That is why we donated 150 patients’ monitors for patients in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. We are talking about a donation worth 45 million dinars, almost 400,000 Euros, to countries where this company has its factories. However, our support continued through the financial assistance of the Hemofarm Foundation worth 5 million dinars to Vrsac and Sabac, the cities where the company’s manufacturing facilities are located. It was our way of saying thank you for the trust the citizens have given us for the last 60 years, and out support in these hard moments.
In your opinion, what was the reaction of the pharmaceutical industry, globally speaking?
In situations like these, it is expected of the pharmaceutical industry to respond quickly. When if not now? I think it generally responded well, with every company had its priorities. As I said, our priority was the continuation of production and a sufficient supply of medicine. In this period, Stada prioritized the production of medicine for which there is great demand during the pandemic, like anti-inflammation drugs, immunostimulators and pain medications. Also, its goal was the stable supply of medicine used for other important therapies, like cancer. Those are the patients we were most concerned about.
When it comes to innovative companies, they are already in a race to patent the COVID-19 vaccine and I find it very interesting to follow. Human trials are beginning in Germany, and I hope it will have good results.
That means that, if necessary, you will get vaccinated?
Yes, of course. We seem to forget that washing hands, or the implementation of basic hygienic standards, the discovery of penicillin and vaccines for various diseases are the most important civilizational steps which enable us to live longer and better.
What can we expect in a world after the coronavirus? At what speed will the economy recover? Are we in for a serious recession?
The pandemic has shoved in our faces the evidence that the global system that we have created and thought was impenetrable is weak and full of holes. Look at what happened to the supply chain which shows that it is not stable because of its global (intercontinental) character. If we are smart and apply what we have learnt in this lesson, the post corona economy will have to be less shortsighted, the supply chain more local, and the international and state financial support important for the functioning of the economy. When it comes to the healthcare system, I hope we have learnt in the US example just how important general healthcare is. I am not a fan of the darkest estimations which say we are in for a recession like the one we had at the beginning of the century, because I think the world has the capacity to react, but we will have to be quick, skilful and very smart if we want to come out of this with as little of damage as possible.
There is also a positive lesson the coronavirus has given us – the importance of digitalization in all walks of life. I noticed that even some of the most conservative local companies have gone online. The world after the corona will definitely be a lot more digital.