Covid-19
December 29, 2020

COVID-19 in 2021: Is Your Company Ready?

Authored by Charlene Wheeless, senior advisor for equity and justice at APCO Worldwide and Barie Carmichael, senior counselor at APCO Worldwide

This blog post first appeared in the APCO Worldwide Thought Leadership Platform APCO Forum

Bridging the period between the pandemic and widespread COVID-19 immunity will require thoughtful policies that further define your corporate legacy and how you live your values. Anticipating the issues before the spotlight comes—when you have time to thoughtfully consider diverse and competing interests—will yield better policies. Thinking this through with an outside-in perspective—including partners who can ask tough questions—is critical.

The good news is, with expanded access to both vaccines and testing—including daily at-home options—your company can redefine “normal,” revisiting work-from-home policies, business travel and the need for in-person meetings to name a few policy changes. In fact, your company may be enabling access to vaccinations and testing given the global scale of this effort. The potential bad news is that how your company navigates the bridge to this new “new normal” will be complicated, and if you aren’t careful, can further catalyze racial inequities.

Since the pandemic knows no boundaries, policy issues and questions will be global. To illustrate the complexity within the space of this blog, let’s consider business operations in the United States where the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued guidelines saying employers can require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine and bar them from the workplace if they refuse. Will your company require a vaccination as a condition for an on-site presence for employees? What about on-site third-party service providers, customers or visitors? If you required essential employees to work on site before a vaccine was available, what is your rationale for now requiring one? If vaccination is required, will you work with local health authorities to ensure ready vaccine? How will you do that without seeming to disregard federal and local guidelines regarding vaccine priorities?

ISSUES OF RACIAL INEQUITIES

In addition, many distrust the safety of vaccines. Black, Latino and immigrant communities have legitimate concerns based on current and historical mistreatment. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latino and Black American communities are three times more likely to become infected with COVID-19 as their white neighbors. They are also more likely die from COVID-19 than white patients by a factor of three or more.

Surveys also suggest they are less inclined to take a COVID-19 vaccine. This reticence is not unfounded.  For decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health and other organizations have reported that healthcare disparities, for Black communities in particular, are found in mental health, infant mortality rates and maternal death, just to name a few. One only has to read of the Johns Hopkins University’s mistreatment of Henrietta Lacks in 1951, which led to the ground-breaking discovery of the HeLa cells, best chronicled in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” or the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee in 1932, to understand the depth of Black America’s fear and distrust of healthcare institutions.  Similar to the Tuskegee study, from 1946-1948, U.S. government scientists infected 1300 Guatemalans in a study of syphilis and gonorrhea without their knowledge.

COVID-19 is further emphasizing an inequity that our country has largely chosen to ignore. Years of neglecting these issues now pose a greater threat to health in the United States, and thus economic vitality for all.  How will your policies address these concerns?

ISSUES OF EXPOSURE

If you do not require a vaccine as a condition for working on-site, will you allow continued remote work? If so, what will be your policies? For example, employees living with at-risk, unvaccinated dependents will be concerned about bringing the virus home due to exposure if they work on site. In fact, at the early stage of deploying the vaccine, data are not yet clear on whether those vaccinated can still spread COVID-19.

The on-site workplace exposure to COVID-19 is not limited to employees. On-site service employees providing maintenance, security, or food service or commercial building staff may or may not be vaccinated for an extended time period, not to mention workplace visitors. What policy questions do these scenarios trigger?

POLICIES FOR DIGITAL PASSPORTS

Businesses most fundamentally disrupted by the pandemic involve those with extensive retail customer engagement, like hospitality or transportation. Digital passports that certify vaccination can be an important enabler to resuming full business operations. However, policy questions must be anticipated. For example, how would obtaining a digital passport disadvantage some customers due to inequitable access to a vaccine or other concerns around privacy and the use of such information? What is this the likelihood that this will increase the racial divide that has already reached deadly proportions?

Getting this right is important and requires an analysis of factors that go well-beyond the workplace and must take into consideration second and third order of effects, and beyond. Racial disparities are their own pandemic. Will workplace dynamics based on the vaccine be the next? As a leader of your organization, are you asking the right questions before your answers are in the public spotlight?