Is It Equitable to Protect Corporate Leaders From Covid-19 More than Employees and Customers?

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

A simple question to encourage you to think more about #COVID19 risks and engage in a discussion about equity in the workplace: If the world’s top business leaders recognize and take precautions against COVID during an ongoing pandemic, shouldn’t they ensure the same for employees and customers? Shouldn’t our companies’ commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion suggest equal treatment for everyone?

Corporate Leaders Gathered Safely in Davos this Week

For over a year, employees have been urged back into offices and events with little to no precautions. In that time, it’s been common for corporate and government leaders to declare that COVID is over, propose we learn to “live with COVID,” and set policies that encourage employees and customers to gather with no precautions. Yet when the top political and corporate leaders of the world gathered this past week at the World Economic Forum, they were required to adhere to strict rules and protected with interventions that included:

  • A requirement to download a mobile app and input personal data.
  • A required PCR test given by a medical professional. After their arrival in Davos, attendees had a two-day window to complete a free COVID-19 PCR test at one of the Forum’s testing centers. Medical staff gave the required test rather than relying on a self-reported test. (PCR tests are processed by a lab and are more accurate than the LFT tests you use at home.) The test and its results were automatically connected to the participant’s badge. If attendees failed to take the test or the test was positive, their badge was deactivated.
  • State-of-the-art ventilation systems installed in all areas with restricted air circulation. Photos of gatherings showed plentiful commercial-grade HEPA 13 air filters.
  • Venue areas cleaned, disinfected and ventilated several times a day.
  • Masks required for all forum-provided official transport drivers at all times.
  • Rapid antigen tests available free of charge throughout conference venues.
  • Masks – surgical and FFP2 – provided and made easily available throughout the meeting’s venues.

How Do The COVID Policies in Davos Compare to Your Offices and Events?

You may not have heard of the strict rules at Davos, and you know why? No one complained. Not one powerful leader said their privacy was more important. No CEO argued that the rules were onerous. No attendee publicly suggested the pandemic was over, risks were minimal, and the restrictions were unnecessary.

How do the rules at Davos compare to your office and the conferences you’ve attended recently? Have any of you been required to take a PCR or LFT test before gathering? Are your offices and conference rooms protected with high-end filtration systems? Are areas disinfected and ventilated multiple times throughout the day? Do you have access to free masks and tests?

I am frequently invited to speak at conferences. I always inquire about COVID restrictions and rules, and I am consistently told some version of “we adhere to local rules and laws.” That, of course, means there will be no restrictions at the event. As a result, I continue to decline these invitations, even though I miss public speaking and am aware my preference to protect my and others’ health harms my career. But, should companies and event organizers merely rely on what is required by law and not what is advisable to protect the health and safety of our employees and customers?

The WHO and CDC Continue to Advise COVID Caution

At this point in the pandemic, many health organizations continue to urge a great deal more caution. The World Health Organization just updated its guidance to urge masks “for anyone in a crowded, enclosed, or poorly ventilated space… irrespective of the local epidemiological situation.” WHO has also published a Generic All-Hazards Risk Assessment and Planning Tool for Mass Gathering Events. This detailed interactive tool allows event planners to answer a very thorough questionnaire, and if they do so accurately, they will be advised to enforce a series of strict precautions at their events.

Even the US CDC, which has generally had looser guidance, recommends “a high-quality mask or respirator” where COVID community levels are high. COVID risks in the US are declining this week (but are likely to reverse due to the growth of new immune-evasive variants like XBB.1.5). Yet, for the past month, large areas of the upper- and mid-Atlantic region were in that high community spread category, but few offices and events had masking requirements that align with the CDC guidance.

The CDC further advises masking for anyone in an area with medium community risk if they have “household or social contact with someone at high risk (of) getting very sick.” About four in ten adults (37.6%) in the U.S. (92.6 million people) are considered high risk for COVID infections due to their older age (65 and older), obesity, disability, or health condition such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease. When you consider your employees and customers who are in this portion and those who live with or have regular contact with high-risk individuals, that suggests we should see plentiful masking in offices and events in much of the nation. But, of course, we do not.

At this point, you would be excused for wondering why all the fuss given that political leaders have declared the pandemic over, the media has largely moved on, and everyone believes COVID is “just the flu.” I find many are surprised to learn that while the fatality and hospital rate have fallen, COVID risks remain considerable. When the final 2022 data is compiled, COVID will likely still be a top three cause of death in the US. Moreover, a well-respected and exhaustive study recently warned, “At least 65 million individuals worldwide are estimated to have long COVID, with cases increasing daily… with the highest percentage of diagnoses between the ages of 36 and 50 years, and most long COVID cases are in non-hospitalized patients with a mild acute illness.” It concludes, “a significant proportion of individuals with long COVID may have lifelong disabilities if no action is taken.” While many people have had COVID (often more than once) and recovered, we must recognize our next infection may not be the same, as repeated infections increase risks of both acute and chronic outcomes.

The Question of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion For Everyone Regardless of Health Risks

If business leaders ignore the recommendations of the WHO and CDC, enacting only the policies required by law in offices, event spaces, and business locations, that is a legally sound business strategy that mitigates business risk. But given we know corporate leaders recognized and willingly followed the much stricter COVID policies at the World Economic Forum, can we consider our current COVID business policies equitable?

It is difficult to know how a company can commit to its DEI values in a pandemic era when so many employees and customers are at risk. It is far from clear how corporate leaders should balance business needs against the life- and health-saving guidance recommended by public health agencies. These questions do not have easy answers, but my concern is that they aren’t even being asked.

I hope that the policies enforced in Davos begin to raise more questions that lead us to better, more considered, and more informed answers about our companies’ roles in protecting employee and customer wellbeing. Any company committed to DEI must, in my opinion, consider the diversity of health risks faced by employees and customers, equitable treatment regardless of individual health risks, and inclusion of those who must or opt to remain safe.

Please stay informed and take note of growing risks like immune-evasive variants, diminishing vaccine protection, and long-term COVID complications. Make safer decisions for you, your family, your employees, and your customers. And engage within your organizations to probe how equitable your office, event, and location policies are to those at higher-risk of adverse outcomes from COVID infections.

Editor’s Note: This article republished with permission of the author with first publication on LinkedIn.

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