How to not be a 'Covidiot' employer during a raging pandemic

 At a weekly review meeting ahead of the FY21 financial year closure, the senior vice president of a financial services firm proudly said that an employee had joined in on all virtual calls despite being COVID-19 positive.

“We admire his exceptional commitment to working and he logged in every single day,” he said to a dazed group of employees.

Nobody knew that their colleague had tested positive. After knowing this, none of them were impressed. In fact, they were angry that he was made to work despite being infected by a deadly virus.

This is not a lone example. Amid a raging pandemic, organizations across India have been advised to follow COVID-19 appropriate behaviour. This includes social distancing, remote working for non-essential staff, and ensuring safety, hygiene in the workplace.

'Covidiot' was a term first coined in 2020, referring to behavior by people/companies that violate the basic principles of health and hygiene required to prevent and minimise the outbreak. In the last year, many employers in India have turned out to be Covidiots.

Take the first instance mentioned above. The COVID-19 positive employee was nudged to be part of all virtual meetings and conference calls on the pretext that he only had mild symptoms.

"We came to know from our colleague that he wasn't working willingly, but did so because was concerned that he would lose his job. Even remote working involves effort and mental energy which someone affected by a virus would find it tough. This was very irresponsible behaviour by the company," a fellow employee said.

At a large transport company in Kolkata, employees were warned against disclosing their health status to colleagues. But when one employee had to be hospitalised, several others realised that she had been coming to the office despite having clear symptoms of COVID-19.

Colleagues confronted her after she resumed work on April 19, but she confessed that the employer had forced her to hide symptoms or she would get terminated from service.

"I was told that if I told other people, then fellow staff would be wary of reporting to work. This could have potentially affected the business. I know this was foolish on my part but my hands were tied. I could not afford to lose my job," said the employee Sujata Saha.

At a clothing wholesaler in Surat, employees bore the brunt of hiding information. An employee who had tested positive was forced to come to work considering that the company had a huge backlog of orders.

Despite his best efforts to maintain social distancing, three others store staff tested positive. When confronted, the manager said that he was unaware of the employee testing positive.

"We were just shocked how nobody told us. That man used to come in with a high fever and there was no thermal scan at the entry. Unfortunately, we had to get a local police officer involved. The manager apologised and paid the medical bills for everyone," said one staffer who had tested positive and has now recovered.

If employees complain to the authorities, companies violating norms of COVID-19 can be booked under the provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and Disaster Management Act 2005. The issue is that employees rarely complain about fear of being terminated from service.

Surprise checks are also said to be conducted in parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka by the authorities. However, this cannot be a permanent solution because how many offices can the authorities really check?

At an IT solutions company in the outskirts of Mumbai, ahead of the lockdown-like restrictions amid the COVID-19 second wave, the human resources head subtly indicated that employees won't be allowed to work from home.

Considering that Mumbai was clocking in close to 9,500 cases a day in the first week of April 2021, employees were concerned by this decision. A few staff workers approached HR who told them that she had made arrangements to allow them to work physically from the office.

"We were perplexed because our company which provides software support to online retailers wasn't really an essential services firm. It was also risky for us to be coming to the office when cases were exploding. So we had to seek help from a local politician who then sent a notice to the company management that only work-from-home would be permitted," an employee said.

Following this, the company HR also tried to threaten employees to reveal the name of the whistleblower who had informed authorities. Nobody budged and the matter was closed.

On April 23, India reported 3.46 new COVID-19 cases and 2,600 deaths, which was a record high for the country. India also tops the chart in terms of daily new infections and deaths being added. Amid this, the last thing the country needs is employers having utter disregard for rules and wanting to do business at any cost.

If all your employees fall sick and need to be hospitalised, how will you run the business?

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