The World Economic Forum has vowed to hold its annual meeting in Davos in January, testing the willingness of a globetrotting elite to resume the high-powered networking that has been frozen by the coronavirus pandemic.
Such events have been cancelled around the world since the pandemic began, with many chief executives expressing doubt that they will return to the conference circuit as before.
Some Davos-goers have even speculated that this year’s meeting itself was instrumental in spreading the virus.
“I had this nightmare that somehow in Davos, all of us who went there, got it. And then we all left and spread it. The only good news from that is that it might just have killed the elite,” Jamie Dimon, chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, joked at an investor meeting in February.
Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s founder and executive chairman, roundly dismissed that as a possibility in an interview with the Financial Times. The first case of Covid-19 in Switzerland was not recorded until February 23, nearly a month after the annual meeting had wrapped up, he noted. “I have a very good conscience in this respect,” he said.
Mr Schwab said the WEF had tested among its members the idea of holding the meeting as usual in January. “We got, I would say, enthusiastic support, because it’s clear you have to go back to a new normality,” he said.
The meeting would only proceed if the WEF could guarantee the safety and security of its participants, Mr Schwab stressed. But he expressed confidence that it could do so and argued that an in-person setting was the only effective way for the summit to proceed.
The purpose of the 2021 meeting would be to plot a “great reset of capitalism”, Mr Schwab said, contending that the pandemic had laid bare the deficiencies of an “old system” that had neglected infrastructure, healthcare and social security systems.
“If we continue as we do now . . . I could foresee that we will have a revolt on our hands,” he said.
He plans to launch an appeal on Wednesday for global leaders to channel investments to “build better”, suggesting that governments reassess the case for wealth taxes in highly unequal societies and end subsidies to fossil fuel industries.
The multilateralism that Davos has promoted for 50 years has been put under new pressure by the pandemic, which has led to nationalistic finger-pointing and deepened concerns about a decoupling of the Chinese and American economies.
However, Mr Schwab argued that this situation only made gatherings such as Davos more important. “In the end, everyone will be better off if we co-operate, compared to following an egoistic path,” he said.