The coronavirus economy: Switching production for the greater good

As the global COVID-19 pandemic worsens, businesses across the globe are being forced to dramatically change operations both to stay afloat and to do some wider good for a stricken society.

As we are all learning every day, things move fast in a global pandemic.

It's not very long ago since Bronagh Conlon was toasting her newly expanded Listoke Gin Distillery and Gin School in County Louth, on Ireland's east coast.

"There's certainly a gin in every country, if there's not a gin in nearly every town. It's really buzzing," she said back in 2018 of the growing industry.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything for businesses like Conlon's. A global shortage of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, in the wake of repeated warnings by health experts about the need for better hand hygiene to stem the pandemic, gave her the idea to have the distillery make sanitizer instead of gin for a while.

"We are using the normal ingredients that can go into gin to make hand sanitizer," she told RTÉ Radio. "So it is not new. The WHO recommendation is that hand sanitizers need to have over 60% of alcohol to be effective against the coronavirus so that is why we said we could try and do something different."

Distillers like Listoke have pretty much all that they need to switch from making alcohol-based drinks to sanitizers, although Conlon says she is looking for a bottling and labeling company to assist. Originally, she just made a few bottles for herself but when she realized the scale of the shortage elsewhere, the company moved to full production.

"The motivation isn't to make money, the motivation is we can actually do something to make a difference at a time when we are in uncharted waters," she said. The company has already donated many of the bottles to charities, nursing homes and emergency services.

That's the spirit

Much larger players than Listoke have realized the need to diversify in the face of the pandemic.

Irish Distillers, the spirits giant behind brands such as Jameson, has followed in the footsteps of Listoke and on Thursday announced it would start producing hand sanitizer. It will supply the gel for free to the Health Service Executive of Ireland.

French company Pernod Ricard, the world's second-largest wine and spirits seller, has made a similar move. It says it will provide stocks of isopropyl alcohol to antibacterial liquid or gel producers, as there is currently a global shortage of that vital ingredient.

"We have been mobilizing and looking at how we can supply our 96 proof alcohol to partners to produce sanitizing gel," a spokesman for the company said.