Picture: 123RF/smcbuki
Picture: 123RF/smcbuki

Thousands of organisations are grappling with what is shaping up to be a delicate trade-off between making vaccinations against Covid-19 compulsory and respecting the civil rights of workers who choose to remain unvaccinated. 

This complex issue is occupying the minds of professionals in the enterprise risk management and business continuity space, who are advising their employers and clients on how to navigate the looming introduction of Covid-19 vaccine passports, proof that you have tested negative or have been inoculated.

This has left employers with both a legal and ethical dilemma. Beyond Covid-19, organisations face several other major risks that range from cyber attacks and data breaches, to climate change. These risks are a threat to the future sustainability of all organisations and must be managed.

The vaccine passport debate is raging across the world as countries desperately try to inoculate at least 60%-70% of their populations to attain herd immunity and fully reopen their economies, following the implementation of lockdown and travel restrictions to halt the spread of the deadly virus.

Many industries, particularly tourism, travel, entertainment and recreation, have felt the brunt of the pandemic and are looking to the vaccine passports as a solution. This will enable them to get back their customers after shutting down their operations for a long time to comply with lockdown regulations.

The damage is vast. Two Harvard University economists, David Cutler and Lawrence Summers, estimate that the pandemic may cost the US, the world’s leading economy, $16-trillion, which is roughly 90% of its GDP.

In SA, the government has introduced vaccine passports as it chases a target of vaccinating about 40-million individuals by year-end. Some employers are instituting compulsory vaccination for their employees as they seek to protect their businesses from Covid-related disruptions.

As expected, there is apprehension that unvaccinated employees could be let go or mandated to conduct weekly Covid-19 testing at their own cost before they are allowed into workplaces.

However, President Cyril Ramaphosa has cautioned that these measures must be implemented in a manner that respects the rights of people who refuse to vaccinate on medical and constitutional grounds.

The JSE is considering its response and is joining other organisations by implementing a hybrid-working model whereby it allows employees flexibility to either work remotely in the safety of their homes or at its newly redesigned office building in Sandton. The remodelled building ensures that appropriate hygienic measures are in place along with social distancing in the spacing of work stations and in the design of engagement areas.

As organisations perform risk assessments, some may conclude that non-pharmaceutical preventive measures are not a long-term solution for them. Therefore, they cannot allow unvaccinated people (both employees and customers) into their premises due to the risk of being shut down in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak.

I suspect most organisations that rely on workers being physically present at work, like those in the mining, manufacturing and agricultural industries, might support mandatory inoculation for their workers. These types of organisations may see vaccine hesitancy or mistrust as a threat to their future sustainability.

For example, in Israel the green pass system issues vaccination cards to those who have recovered, tested negative, or have been vaccinated. These cards are mandatory to enter most enclosed spaces. In England, plans to introduce passports have been abandoned for now.

Almost two years into the pandemic, Covid-19 has shown it is a real foe to be reckoned with, and organisations are pulling all stops to insulate themselves from future business disruptions and revenue losses.

Across the world, Covid-19 is not the only risk organisations are dealing with. Other pressing challenges include climate change, data breaches and social instability caused by widening economic inequalities. If you are in SA, you can also throw load-shedding and severe water shortages into the risk mix.

The JSE has taken steps to mitigate and manage these risks through a comprehensive integrated risk and resilience management programme. The programme comprises a four-pillar approach of anticipate, withstand, respond and recover that is applied to all operational, financial and strategic risks, as well as major systemic events such as the effect of Covid-19 and climate change.

Over the last five years, the World Economic Forum has listed climate change as one of the top-five global risks facing organisations. Climate change can affect businesses in so many ways. It contributes to adverse weather such as floods, hurricanes and droughts, resulting in organisations ending up with stranded assets.

Climate change is also leading to rising sea levels, and with about 40% of the global population living near the coast, this means organisations may have to consider the effect of mass migration of staff and business operations away from these regions.

In light of the urgent response required to tackle climate change, the JSE has joined the Race to Zero Partner Initiative through the Net Zero Financial Service Providers Alliance and the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero to promote and champion sustainability measures within SA, and internationally, and has committed to supporting net zero by 2050.

Organisations, including the JSE, may have to consider embracing the hybrid-working model as a climate change mitigant as it was evident during hard lockdown periods that it could lead to significant reductions in carbon emissions due to less travelling to and from workplaces.

In conclusion, it is important for organisations to put controls and backup plans in place to mitigate against these risks to ensure their operational resilience and long-term business sustainability.

• Comninos is chief group risk officer at the JSE.

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