We have now delivered over 20-million vaccine doses, with 10.5-million people fully vaccinated. Opening vaccinations to over-12s later this month will add momentum for a while. But it is clear that take-up rates are slowing. We have 27% of our adult population fully vaccinated including 53% of those over 60, but need to reach 60%-70% to minimise the impact of the virus.
What can we do as business? There is much that we are doing, but I would like to encourage employers to consider how they can support their employees to become vaccinated. That can help drive vaccination rates and get us closer to the levels needed to save many lives.
I have written before that our challenge has shifted from one of securing enough vaccine supply to one of reaching enough recipients while overcoming vaccine hesitancy. Our delivery rate has improved – we have delivered over 1-million doses in three of the last four weeks – but we are at half the 350,000/day rate now needed to reach the 70% target by the end of the year. Discovery has estimated that if we reach 60%, we would avoid 25,000 deaths from a fourth wave that could strike in December. At our current rate we are on course for 50% by Christmas. This may even be a stretch.
There is growing concern that the campaign will begin to run out of willing recipients, compounded by going into the festive season when people will be away from home and harder to reach. For example, evidence is emerging that people who receive the first Pfizer jab are not returning for the second, with Gauteng province recently reporting that a million people had not turned up for their second vaccination.
Organised business has been working hard throughout the vaccination campaign as a partner to the Department of Health through the Business for South Africa campaign. We began by assisting government to secure supplies of vaccines and have since been working along with our members to ensure the vaccination campaign can reach all South Africans by providing hundreds of vaccination sites. That work continues and the focus has shifted to boosting the demand side and supporting increased access to vaccination sites.
For employers, the obvious discussion is the extent to which companies should be mandating vaccination for employees. The law says that companies have a responsibility to ensure that employees operate in a safe environment. The current Level 1 regulations still require employers to enable employees to work from home. This is a regulation whose time has come – the productivity impact and loss of skills transfer particularly to junior employees increasingly trumps any purported health benefit. As employees return to the workplace, employers must consider the health risks that exist in the workplace. A company that has no face-to-face contact between employees or customers could not justifiably require vaccines as an essential safety measure. But when companies do mandate vaccines, there is a material public benefit externality that arises – they are helping to ensure that the overall South African vaccination rate ratchets up closer to levels needed to reduce deaths and ensure more economic activity.
The facts are clear. The vaccinated are 50%-80% less likely to catch the disease and around 93% less likely to die from it. While there is some risk of adverse effects from vaccination, this is miniscule compared with the risk of dying from Covid – one or two vaccine recipients per million suffer a severe adverse effect, but 1,810 people per million have died from Covid in South Africa.
Internationally, both governments and companies have mandated vaccination with a failure to comply being a dismissible offence. The legal view is that a similar route could be followed here, given that a refusal to obey a health and safety rule that endangers others amounts to serious misconduct. However, companies can try to accommodate employees who still refuse vaccination, for example by requiring the alternative of regular mandatory testing or isolation.
The involvement of organised business in the vaccine campaign is primarily about doing what we can to save lives. But it is also about protecting livelihoods, ensuring that normal economic activity can resume and people can work to feed themselves and their families. Now we must focus on driving vaccination rates. Business as employers can play a crucial role.
There is much else that can be done as an alternative, or in addition to, mandates. The workplace can be a place to inform and consult with employees to understand any vaccine hesitancy there may be and provide support to overcome it. Providing leave for vaccinations is a legal requirement, but also another way to encourage employees to get vaccinated. Indeed, there is some evidence that one of the major problems is that many workers, particularly in the informal sector, just don’t have time to get vaccinated. That problem needs to be addressed by making vaccines even more accessible.
Government should also explore the use of mandates in the public sector. Healthcare workers at least should be required to be vaccinated and I can see a strong argument for the same to apply to teachers and others who work closely with the public.
B4SA provides much support on its website for employers who are considering their options. I would encourage all businesses to access that resource and come up with a plan for how you can support your employees to get vaccinated.
The Draft Companies Amendment Bill was approved by cabinet last month and is out for public comment. I argue in Business Day that it adds significant administrative burdens on companies while diminishing SA’s attractiveness as a place to do business. What we need is to implement policies that enable businesses to flourish. This will lead to economic growth and only through that can we successfully overcome SA’s socioeconomic ills, including income inequality.
While SA is tackling top-level “big bang reforms” where it’s necessary to remove blockages to economic activity, a bottom-up reform process is also crucial. I write in fin24 that we need our lawmakers to examine every business regulation that requires compliance of one sort or another, particularly those that affect small businesses, and assess whether they can be scrapped.
This is a weekly newsletter from BLSA CEO Busi Mavuso.
BLSA is a business organisation that believes in South Africa’s future and shares the values set out in the Constitution. In 2017, BLSA signed a contract with South Africa, committing business to playing its part in creating a South Africa of increasing prosperity for all by harnessing the resources and capabilities of business in partnership with government and civil society to deliver economic growth, transformation and inclusion.
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