BusinessDay

Companies navigate COVID-19 third wave to stay open, protect staff

Nigeria’s private companies are adopting several measures to hedge their businesses against the potential fallout from the rise of COVID-19 third wave.

Some employers, who were hard hit during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic and the four-month lockdown in 2020, are requiring that workers show proof of vaccination at work to keep infections at bay, BusinessDay found.

Similar to the idea of “vaccine passport” that some countries have adopted to reopen their economies, some companies that do not want to return to the work-from-home method are sourcing vaccines privately to get all their staff vaccinated.

Others maintain two streams of workers – the vaccinated and unvaccinated – as these companies are torn between keeping their business environment safe and protecting their workers. The unvaccinated test often to confirm they are negative.

They say it is to create a safe workspace and separate those who may be positive from those who are negative.

Those hesitant for personal bias are mandated to provide a COVID-19 test certificate that proves they are negative; otherwise, they neither get to work nor get paid.

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“We have seen that even when the vaccines were available for workers in our sector under the first phase of vaccination, some staff members were still hesitant. We want to ensure that those who have been vaccinated are well protected from those who don’t want to get vaccinated. Better still, they can show a test result,” a source in the oil and gas sector told BusinessDay.

Nigeria is one of the COVID-19 vaccine-starved nations, with less than 1 percent of its estimated 206 million population vaccinated.

It also doubles as a destination for one of the most expensive COVID-19 test in Africa at N50,400. COVID-19 tests for purposes such as this are still restricted to private laboratories that charge this rate.

Hope of building herd immunity by vaccinating 70 percent of the population remains bleak as COVAX, the global facility for vaccine distribution to lower-middle-income countries, struggles to get vaccines.

Although Nigeria expects slightly over 4 million doses of Moderna vaccine from the United States this week, it will only give full coverage to 2 million people, bringing the total vaccinated to just over 4 million, about 1.9 percent of the population.

The telling lack of vaccines in volumes have cast doubts on the viability of the no-vaccine-no-work idea, as experts argue that many in the corporate work setting and the majority in the informal sector would be affected.

They also argue that making vaccination indirectly mandatory to retain employment could infringe on the fundamental right of people to make personal health decisions as being claimed by anti-vaccine apologists in countries such as the US and the UK.

However, many companies are still operating the work-from-home system and have sustained public and social measures of physical distancing, use of nose-mask, hand-washing and sanitising, Olumide Balogun, chief executive, Box and Cedar, a human resource consulting firm, told BusinessDay.

A Mckinsey report in July shows workers are re-evaluating their relationships with their employers and, contrary to what companies think, they are not jumping for joy at the prospect of a full return to the office.

More than three-quarters of C-suite executives surveyed by McKinsey say they expected the typical “core” employee to be back in the office three or more days a week.

While they realise that the work-from-home experiment was surprisingly effective, they also believe that it hurts organisational culture and they expect a new normal that is somewhat more flexible.

“There are a lot of companies that are not bringing their people back into the office yet. They are still working from home. I don’t think companies will want to shut down again like last year. A lot suffered last year when there was lockdown, in terms of revenue and more. If it was like the United Kingdom or the United States where they are vaccinating several millions of people, then this can work,” Balogun explained.

The get-vaccinated and get-tested move also reflects the length companies would go to prevent any loss of the recovery acquired since the lockdown was lifted.

The country has seen substantial relaxation in containment measures, which has supported the resumption of commercial and trade activities and spurred quite a modest economic performance in the first half.

There has been an appreciable increase in trade volume since the start of the year, amid a low vaccination rate. Nigeria’s trade with the global community, for instance, rose to about N9 trillion between January and March this year.

Similarly, the scale of contraction in the Nigerian trade sector moderated from a double-digit to a single digit in the first quarter 2021.

Economic activities have really been boosted by sustained policy support and substantial relaxation of lockdown measures.

But while these gains are being protected, other experts think there need to be a balance between advocacy on the benefits of vaccination and respecting the terms of contract that protect workers’ rights.

“What we want to do is to look at what employees will do in post-COVID-19 era to keep their business afloat. We have seen streamlining of staff. So, it is not just getting tested. It is just one of the ways business owners or entrepreneurs are concerned about keeping their business afloat. There must be this fine line of balance,” Faith Ekhaisomi, a legal practitioner, at O.A Omonuwa & Co., said.

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