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COVID 19: Balancing the economy with a safe lockdown

Recently, there have been much debate in Bangladesh and abroad on whether or not it is economically sustainable to continue complete lockdowns in countries, in both the developing economics i.e. Bangladesh and also in developed countries i.e. the USA, calling for an urgent need to balance economic functions with a safe lockdown.

On the other hand, while Bangladesh plans for a phase by phase plan of removing the lockdown, what’s important for the government is to assess not only whether the business is essential to open up, but also to assess whether the business is capable of operating and serving its customers via alternative modalities of operations i.e. via e-commerce, f-commerce and/or telecommerce.

To start with, any industry categorized as serving its customers in the service sector should primarily need to apply to the government for permission if they want to operate in-person during the lockdown, against an assessment form justifying why their business cannot serve its customers via alternate information, communications and technology (ICT) based channels.

Such service sector enterprises may include for example those operating in the education sector; the entertainment industry; creative agencies; head office and branches of development organizations that do not have direct field engagement; etc. Exceptions can be made for industries with relatively low-income customers as target groups, who otherwise would not be able to exploit such ICT based platforms for purchase decisions.

Similarly, sales and retail industries, plus those in the financial sector should also be required to justify whether they have made efforts to minimize on-site customers via online or call-centre based sales and service modalities.

Enterprises, especially sales and retail outlets, should also be encouraged to source from home-based produce of suppliers, workers and farmers via partnerships and networks with cooperatives, NGOs, trade unions and trade union federations.

Tele-consultation hotlines, whether paid or unpaid, should especially be made mandatory for those operating in the health sector, to enable primary remote advice in any medical discipline or speciality. People have ongoing health needs, not just in regards to COVID 19, but also in needs starting from hypertension to diabetes to back pain, etc. Such services will aim to reduce the number of visits to the doctor’s chamber or hospital a patient may need to take, reduce the risk for the patient as well as the doctors.

Loans, whether via bank loans or microfinance, can also be facilitated to such service-based industries for setting up ICT platforms for them to expand their operations via mobile apps, e-commerce, social media, and / or telemarketing.  Such loan services can also match businesses with enlisted ICT service providers in the field.

Industries, whether manufacturing or service, on the other hand, will strictly need to be inspected if open to check whether social distancing measures and hygiene practices have been adapted in their workstations and customer outlets in line with national and international social and labour standards i.e. the ILO occupational health and safety guidelines for COVID 19.

On-site staff of companies should also be minimized to essential employees only i.e. those involved in production and distribution, with others kept on teleworking modalities as applicable.

On the other hand, as the lockdown is eased, it is essential that the government adopts and continues a curfew modality, restricting people from travelling together or gathering in groups larger than two in public places.

Originally published in Dhaka Courier

Occupational health and safety measures during COVID-19

There has been a recent circular by the government that the drug manufacturers as export industries will be allowed to gradually reopen. Essential businesses such as banks, food and pharmaceutical companies have, on the other front, already gone in operation. While it is understandable that this may be an essential step in order for the economy to function, what appears to be lacking is government guidelines on occupational health and safety measures for such businesses to function during COVID-19 emergencies.

What can the enterprises do?

Social distancing: As a start, workstations ie cash counters, sewing stations, etc in each enterprise should be rearranged keeping at least two metres or six feet space of physical distance between each employee. The same should also be followed for other places of social gathering at work ie canteens, meeting rooms and customer waiting areas.

To control cues of employees or customers entering the work-station together during entry and exit, enterprises could also draw circles for people to stand or sit and wait at least three to six feet apart while in queue.

Rotational shift hours and wherever applicable rotational workdays could also be maintained to minimise risks of large gatherings of employees working at the same place at a time.

On-site staff should be minimised to essential or critical staff only eg those involved in manufacturing, production, delivery, cash disbursement, etc.

Staff involved in services ie marketing, designing, finance and accounts, etc should be minimised to work-at-home or teleworking modalities, and/or rotational work-day modalities wherever possible. Most meetings are also recommended to be convened via virtual or online modalities at this time of the COVID 19 crisis.

Similarly, office transport should ideally take social distancing modalities as well, limiting the number of people sitting in a row, or putting physical distancing barriers for example. Transport allowances could also be increased so that employees do not have to resort to taking public buses and such risky transport modalities.

For registered customers and/or visitors, they can be assigned different time slot allocations for visits, either randomly or based on business-based algorithms.

Off-site or home delivery services should especially be encouraged for customers via measures ie online sales and services, telesales, telemarketing and active call centres. However, delivery and transport workers should also be guidelines on contact with customers.

Protective gear: All employees should be provided with personal protective gear ie masks, gloves, aprons, head shields, etc while in operation in order to minimise the risk of contamination for both the products, exchange currencies as well as the employee themselves.

Work and community hygiene: A guideline should be provided on intensity and the frequency of disinfectants use required at work ie bleaching of surfaces and workstations, etc at regular intervals, depending on variables i.e. number of employees, frequency of customer visits, etc.

Moreover, hand-washing and hand sanitiser points should be increased and well maintained by the employers for both employees and customers or visitors.

Workplace exhaust system should be improved and well-maintained as well.

For workers from low-income brackets, realising risks they carry back to their families and vice versa, employers should ideally also provide them with hygiene kits to use at home and while travelling to and from work.

Paid sick leave, health and life insurance: Employees are taking a health and life risk to keep their businesses running in this time of crisis. As such, in a goodwill gesture, employers should ideally expand their coverage of paid sick leave to employees so that they do not bring the disease to the workplace when they are symptomatic or have already contacted the diseases.

Employers can also enrol their employees in health and life insurance packages, wherever feasible. As the risk of COVID 19 contamination by an employee also puts their families at risk, such policies should also take a family-centred approach.

Hygiene: Employers should also actively promote hygiene awareness among employees i.e. washing hands, maintaining social distance, covering their mouths while coughing or sneezing, etc.

What can government do?

Social distancing: Many countries have adopted curfew modalities of business operations. If more than two people are found travelling together, gathered together at a distance of fewer than three feet apart in public spaces, or found without masks, fines can be imposed.

On the other hand, operation hours of certain business types could be extended to minimise large crowds gathering together at a time and maintaining low social distance as such.

Public transport: The government needs to impose restrictions on how many people can travel together in both public and private transport ie what is the maximum number of people a bus or tempo can carry, limiting number of people sitting in a row, or putting physical distancing barriers for example, etc. On the other hand, transport facilities should also be given hygiene protocols to follow ie disinfecting surfaces on regular intervals depending of frequency of passengers, size of vehicle, etc.

Inspections: While, at least at the enterprise level, guests or non-essential visitors should be limited, the continuation of workplace inspections would be essential to ensure such rules and regulations are followed and adhered to.

Originally published on New Age.