Employers wanting safer work places and, if they play their cards right, probably gaining exemption from intensified lockdown rules when the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections strike will be examining the new Government policy over its own civil service employees.
Last week Statutory Instrument 234 was gazetted amending the lockdown regulations to give an order to all civil servants to be fully vaccinated by October 15 or face what amounts to suspension without pay while they appear before a disciplinary hearing for disobeying a lawful instruction. This implemented a raft of decisions by the Cabinet and converted the policy to law.
At the same time, a couple of weeks ago, an attempt by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to interdict six employers from demanding all staff were vaccinated or recently tested at their own expense failed to get urgent status in the High Court.
Besides the six employers cited in that ZCTU application there are a growing number of other employers who now want to have all staff fully vaccinated and, while in the absence of a High Court interdict probably are legally covered, would still like to have the legal position fully clarified.
This requires more interaction between the business organisations and the Government. The Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe backed by the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, the Chamber of Mines and the Retailers Association of Zimbabwe, plus any other organisation the big three think will help, need to quickly work out precisely what they want and then see if the Government will help.
At the very least every formal employer, or at least those with more than one or two workers, needs the legal right to insist that all staff are fully vaccinated, with the necessary grace period laid down.
This should not be difficult to have done. It would give all employers the same rights that the Government has found necessary to give itself to minimise the risks of infection in workplaces and what is sauce for the Government goose surely works for the private sector gander.
In fact the only real topics for discussion would surely be whether every employer should be required to demand vaccination for staff, or whether they can choose, and precisely what steps an employer needs to take to ensure that all staff have practical access to vaccination before enforcing any new company rule.
Having full vaccination for all staff obviously boosts the safety of the workplace and protects those who have already taken the plunge and accepted vaccination from those who are far more likely to be infected and bring their infection into the workplace. The recent outbreaks in a couple of dozen schools shows the danger that can happen, and unlike teenagers who appear generally able to shrug off the infection without severe illness, many older workers are obviously at far high risk of serious symptoms.
The second matter is practical. It is basically impossible to predict future infection rates. They might continue falling, as we all hope, allowing more relaxation of the lockdown. They might suddenly start surging requiring tougher lockdown rules. But at some stage we will see a fourth wave, unless almost all adults are vaccinated by then, and that will require tougher rules.
But the Government and its health advisers have been very supportive of fully vaccinated people having more relaxed lockdown conditions. Victoria Falls, during the third wave, had a far more normal business life, although the number of tourists was low, because of the very high rates of vaccination in that city.
Even while other level four conditions were kept in place, exemptions were made for the fully vaccinated in the social sphere which provided a lifeline for restaurants and other businesses.
It is not difficult to imagine that if infection rates rise, and new levels of lockdown are required, that businesses will fully vaccinated staff might well be able to gain exemptions. So a factory or some other business without fully vaccinated staff might have shorter working hours, a factory where everyone has had both jabs might be allowed to continue normally.
Again this is something that Emcoz and the sector representative bodies can start discussing with the Government. The objective, and the private sector needs to be on board with this, is to minimise infection risk. But given that it should be possible to negotiate the best way of achieving this while still allowing businesses to operate as normally as possible.
And considering the Government’s own decisions in its own workplaces, it seems fairly obvious that there is a strong link between vaccination levels and the degree of permitted normality.
While there is a 50 percent requirement for staff levels this is difficult to enforce. Many businesses already have essential status, and so are not affected, and most of those that could be affected are tiny shops that cannot cut the single employee in half. In any case enforcement appears to be slack.
But even that requirement, in a fully vaccinated workplace, could be negotiated if the business sectors can present good data and good argument.
Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of business owners appear to be enthusiasts for vaccination and have had their own shots. This is important, not only as an example to their staff and leadership from the front, but also to establish their own moral authority.
The anti-vaxers appear to be lower down the chain and need to be countered and helped to understand why it is so important. Active human resources counselling would help. It is difficult to understand why people are not willing to accept vaccination, since it appears to be obviously a good idea and the arguments against vaccination seem to be based on misunderstanding in some cases and a deliberate embrace of conspiracy theories in many.
Doctors are pretty unanimous that everyone should be vaccinated and that people with pre-existing conditions should be on top of the list, since they really need the extra protection. Around 3 million Zimbabweans have now had at least one shot, and more than 2,1 million have had both. No one has fallen ill from vaccination, although a minority have a day’s discomfort, and certainly no one has died or become magnetic or any of the other anti-vaxer predictions.
So it is necessary to calm some fears, and perhaps having a health expert talking to staff might help.
The anti-vaxer pressure is largely generated in America, where for the oddest reasons it has become politicised by the right wing of the Republican party. Instead of fighting about tax policies, business rules and the like, the political test now appears to be whether you support vaccination and other precautions like masking.
This has led to the weird result at while more than 85 percent of Democrat voters are vaccinated, less than 55 percent of Republican voters are vaccinated.
Even where the politics intersect with religion there are differences. The evangelical churches have the most split in views. Generally speaking, with exceptions, most evangelical churches with a majority African American membership embrace vaccination and urge their congregations to accept their free shots.
They carefully explain that with pre-existing medical conditions, for all sorts of social reasons more common in minority communities, the free vaccination is their best chance of surviving the pandemic.
Evangelical churches will a largely white membership tend to be otherwise and tend to have the bulk of those who are opposed to vaccination and these people are looking for religious reasons for rejecting vaccination. So perhaps we need to publicise in Zimbabwe what pastors of African descent think, rather than pastors of European descent.
In any case, businesses in Zimbabwe now need to move forward. The Government has given a lead, a very strong lead, in the vaccination drive and even without further legal provision it appears the private sector could follow suit. But if employers would prefer to have a bit more legal coverage, then the solution is obvious: Ask the Government to make the necessary amendments to the lockdown rules.