As I stated in an earlier article, the extent to which a country can return to an active social and economic environment heavily depends on the readiness of its healthcare system (i.e. adequate healthcare resources, sufficient testing capacity and coverage, and data showing evidence of a declining state of the outbreak and its impact) and the readiness of businesses/other entities and the general public to function and operate in safe ways and in compliance with the existing and newly emerging regulations.
As readiness in these areas improves, the closer it would be to an official restart of the economy (and the more likely the country will mature into later phases of the restarting journey). Hence, the success of any reopening strategy requires all ‘hands on deck’ (not just the Government’s). It is also essential that any phased approach to reopening the economy has a built-in and effectively functioning monitoring and evaluation programme or system that will assist the Government and its social partners in making the best and most sensible decisions and assessing the impact of these decisions when moving from one phase to another.
Moreover, it is important that the Government procures and retains an active and growing base of consultants and advisors that it can continually tap into for needed guidance and advice throughout this process. Against this background, I have outlined further suggestions and guidance below (continuing from my last article), to assist both commercial and non-commercial entities and operators (including those in Government and the public sector arenas) in the restarting phases within the peri-COVID-19 pandemic period.
Further guidance on the economic restarting for commercial and non-commercial entities
It is absolutely necessary that all commercial and non-commercial organisations in the various sectors earmarked for the early phase of restarting have the adequate resources to ensure healthy and safe working environments that will protect their workers from the risk of infection and contagion. Prior to restarting, those entities should have made all the necessary adjustments, modifications and changes to their policies, procedures, systems and physical work environments that promote the highest levels of occupational safety and well-being among their employees who are expected to return to the physical workplaces and those who are expected to function in remote or home working contexts. Against this background, I believe that a number of considerations and suggestions are in order:
(a) As far as possible (especially in the earliest phases of reopening), employers should allow only the most essential workers or those with the most essential functions to return to the physical site (if absolutely necessary) but place strict limits on the number of workers needed to operate in a particular physical space on certain days (i.e. rotating staff and/or those operating at various branches if possible).
It is understood that some work assignments can only be executed at the physical sites, but those workers whose jobs can be easily performed in remote situations (e.g. teleworking) should be encouraged to operate in those contexts. It is important for organisations that have at least some capacity to run many of their functions and operations through remote working channels and digital platforms/systems to procure as much support to make this a sustainable reality for workers.
Training is key here – since having the technologies alone is insufficient to guarantee proper use and application. For example, the Ministry of Education should continue to support its teachers by creating the enabling conditions for high-quality digital and virtual instruction and learning through the provision of the necessary technologies, support systems (available ICT hotlines and access to ICT support), and training and development initiatives. Training in this area can be done virtually with educators and other categories of workers to ensure that they fully understand the various dimensions involved in the use and application of these platforms and systems with their students, clients and coworkers.
However, private-public partnerships and initiatives should be forged to make it easier for those workers, students and other users (in all sectors) who must work with these digital technologies, internet/WiFi connectivity, and other systems (e.g. tablets and computers) to have the necessary access within affordable and equitable arrangements (i.e. addressing the national digital divide).
(b) The digital divide phenomenon exposes several key vulnerabilities and constraints in many households, especially those in lower socio-economic brackets, in accessing and leveraging key digitalised resources and opportunities in work and non-work situations. These constraints continue to adversely affect several categories of organisations and workers seeking to conduct online business or fulfill digitally oriented work assignments and roles (e.g. teachers) effectively and efficiently.
There is an urgent need for Government, private sector, and other related entities to work together to address these growing inequalities that limit certain groups in society in participating in ‘digital environments’ by promoting holistic policy-based and practical responses that support the enabling conditions for more equitable access and participation rates in various ‘digitalised’ experiences – i.e. digital teaching/learning and digitally assisted remote working.
(c) Suitable physical distancing arrangements and protocols should be in place that prohibit employees from working too closely with each other and with customers (especially if employees are working in the same physical work spaces and are in customer-facing roles). Where physical contact is necessary, limits should be set in terms of the number of interacting persons at a time and the length of contact time for interactions.
(d) Appropriate protective and safety equipment and other resources including face masks, protective screens/barriers, and the like should be available (and properly in place) in the workplace to protect workers and others from possible human-to-human spread of the virus. Temperature check facilities for workers and customers are important for many service-type and customer-facing organisations (including but not limited to personal care services such as dentists, barbers, and hairdressers – to name a few).
(e) Adequate supplies of cleaning and disinfecting resources for continually cleaning physical surfaces and points of contact as well as the encouragement of regular hand sanitising and washing with soap are essential for all organisations requiring workers to return to physical sites.
(f) A sustainable and ongoing training and educational programme on correctly executing and following health and safety protocols and guidelines with the available support systems, resources, and communications is key for all organisations and workplaces. Such training programmes are essential for managers and employees to equip them with the necessary knowledge, competencies and tools to support the best and safest ways of working at the physical worksite amid COVID-19.
(g) A robust monitoring and evaluation (and ‘policing’) system in which physical and non-physical work spaces can be continually examined to ensure satisfactory compliance throughout all operations of work is necessary, with clear criteria consistent with the national health and safety protocols. My greatest concern with the reopening strategy is the ‘policing’ component and I encourage those in power (at the national and organisational levels) to work out a suitable strategy with a clear implementation framework to promote sufficient adherence by all operating organisations and individuals.
Dr Dwayne Devonish is Senior Lecturer in Management, UWI, Cave Hill
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