WEF's virtual Davos looks to mend Covid-fuelled trust crisis

(Credit: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell)

For only the second time in 50 years, the alpine town of Davos will be unusually quiet this week - its streets, hotels, congress centre and the Stilli heliport deprived of the 3000-strong crowd of politicians, business leaders, journalists and non-governmental organisations that usually gather for the World Economic Forum’s annual event to ruminate on global challenges.

Instead, around 2,000 participants are expected to join a virtual version of the conference that launched on Sunday evening and runs until 29 January. Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Emmanuel Macron, President of France and Yoshihide Suga, Prime Minister of Japan are among the 25 heads of state and government confirmed to speak at the event.

John Kerry, US President Joe Biden’s special climate envoy is also due to speak on the US’ position on climate change.  Taking part from the international community are United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, and the heads of UN agencies including UNICEF, the UN World Food Programme, UN Women, the World Health Organization, as well as Fabiola Gianotti, the director-general of CERN.

This year’s theme, "a crucial year to rebuild trust” will address how the virus has reshaped society and what policies are needed going forward to tackle the pandemic, mend the global economy and restore public trust eroded by the perceived mishandling of the crisis.

WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab told reporters last week that 2021 would be “a pivotal year for humankind”, not only in fighting the virus but also in creating economic growth that is “more resilient, more inclusive, and more sustainable”.

“What we have to do, above all, is to restore trust in our world,” he added, saying that to achieve this, “we have to substantially reinforce global cooperation and second, we have to engage all stakeholders into the solutions of the problems we face. And here we have to engage particularly business.”

This weekend marked a year since the world’s first coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan where the virus is believed to have started.  On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global emergency. Covid-19 has since claimed over 2.1 million lives, as well as millions of jobs and deepening social and economic inequalities worldwide. Meanwhile the climate crisis continued unabated with one extreme weather event after another.

According to the WEF’s annual Global Risks Report published last week, infectious diseases, followed by climate action failure and other environmental risks are perceived as the highest impact risks of the next decade. It also warned of increasing disparities and social fragmentation fuelled by the pandemic that threaten the economy and, in the longer term, threaten to weaken geopolitical stability.

“In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to reset priorities and the urgency to reform systems have been growing stronger around the world,” said Schwab, adding that the  meeting “will be an opportunity for leaders to outline their vision and address the most important issues of our time, such as the need to accelerate job creation and to protect the environment.”

Opening the online meeting on Sunday, Swiss President Guy Parmelin urged business leaders to work on sustainable growth in order “to avoid another crisis”. He said the "speed and effectiveness" of the vaccine rollout has shown countries, businesses and scientific communities are capable of when they come together.

The Davos Agenda will serve as a warm-up for its official annual meeting, which has been postponed to May and swapping Davos for Singapore.