While most Barbadians’ attention has shifted to the general election set for January 19 and the impact which the spread of COVID-19 will have on the ability of thousands of potential voters, a leading member of the business community is equally concerned about the sweeping implications of the latest surge of the virus, on the retail sector.
The alarm is being sounded by the former president of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) Eddy Abed. The owner of Abed’s says the third wave of COVID-19 is beginning to cripple some retail business operations.
In an exclusive interview with COVID Dispatch, the longstanding businessman conceded that rising cases of the disease are impacting frontline workers in a way that is alarming.
Referencing his own business, Abed pointed to the worrying combination of the nature of their work, the volume of different people they may encounter, as well as the after-hours activity of some employees that could result in some tough decisions being made.
“This has occupied the discussion at management level for the last week. We have had situations where staff has been sick with the virus. I’m not sure which mutation they have, but they are sick with COVID-19,” he stated.
“As a matter of protocol, anyone who works within their vicinity is tested within four days to ensure that they don’t have it. And part of that process is that even while those persons are waiting to be tested, they are absent from work.
“You have situations where we have a shortage of our regular manpower that we would normally have at this time of year, and we have had to redouble our protocols in terms of how we deal with customers ensuring that they are social distancing, ensuring that we are continually sanitising workstations and areas that customers may be touching,” he added.
But Abed, who headed the BCCI from 2015 to 2018, explained that though the country still operates under a curfew, people were out at night, and while most businesses enforced the protocols there is no guarantee that after-hours workers are as rigorous in maintaining those standards.
“I am convinced that Omicron is not only present in Barbados but is widely prevalent. I have no idea what the percentages are, but my gut tells me that they are very high.
“The reality is that we have to double down on what we have been doing. People have gotten lax, and a lot of us are frustrated that this thing has dragged out for this long. We tend to forget what we have been taught. Now is not the time to do that,” the business owner said.
In his retail company, Abed said the “situation is compounded because [some people’s] night-time activity was affecting their daytime jobs because the possibility exists that they may be bringing the virus into the workplace”.
“It is an ongoing issue. We are at that tipping point where . . . we don’t have enough of our regular staff in place to ensure that we can deliver the type of service we want. We may have to bring in temporary employees,” he explained.
4 181 in home isolation
According to the latest figures from Government, 269 COVID-19 related deaths were reported, while as of January 12, some 4 181 people were in home isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. Another 100 were in state-run isolation facilities being monitored by doctors.
Meanwhile, the owner of the Abed’s stores, located in Swan, Street, Bridgetown and Sheraton Mall, as well as a warehouse facility says his and other front-line businesses in the retail sector are facing serious challenges.
“Every day, we have people out with the virus, and I just don’t see any end to this in the short term,” he lamented.
Ringing alarm bells
Offering some concrete data of the impact on the company, Abed told COVID Dispatch: “Currently, at three of our locations which are our stores and warehouse, we are running at about 12 per cent vacancy which includes those who are already been diagnosed with having COVID and those who are either waiting to be tested or have already taken the test and are awaiting the all-clear to return to work.
“Typically, up until December , we were running somewhere around five to seven per cent, but our numbers are trending up. Our critical number is 15 per cent. If we get to 15 per cent, we have to start ringing alarm bells because it starts to interfere with those who are on holiday, off days during the week, deliveries, and the level of service we can offer to our customers. We are close to that point.”
Stressing that he could not speak for the entire sector, the former BCCI president said his informal discussions with captains of industry, service managers and other decision-makers, suggest the third wave of COVID-19 infections in Barbados was hurting retail and service sector businesses hard.
“Any operation that has frontline staff – those would be retail outlets – are going to be affected similarly. Those who don’t have frontline staff, who may be distribution or other types of business and can deliver remotely, by telephone, would not see the same trend we are. This is very worrying,” the businessman admitted.
“We have been brainstorming on what to do. One of the ideas is if we don’t have enough temporary staff or regular staff in place, we may then have to consolidate from our two stores to ensure at least one store is open and sacrifice the other store being closed for a short period while the staff are being tested and are waiting to get their negative results.”
Asked what could be done to stem the situation on a national basis, Abed stressed there was no one answer or easy fix.
“We need to be more specific and preach to our frontline staff that they must sanitise their workstations . . . because that is one of the easiest ways that it is transmitted, whether someone touches you or you touch your face.
“The reality is that we have to become a lot more aware of that. If there is a bright spot it is what we are hearing in the news that the Omicron [variant] should leave quickly. They are saying that over the next six weeks, the numbers should peak and then start to come down, but in the meantime, it is continuing to be a problem,” he said.
Abed added: “We are open to business. We welcome our customers and ensure that our security knows that all customers have to wear their masks correctly, check temperatures and sanitise, and we are redoubling in those efforts.” (IMC1)
This article appears in the January 14 edition of COVID Dispatch. Read the full publication here.