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Risky business: COVID-19 and safety at work

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Photo: UN Women Asia-Pacific

The numbers of home workers around the world  have been swelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting a fresh focus on the need for employers to ensure that their employees are working in a safe environment. On the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we look at some of the ways the UN is helping employers and governments to keep people safe, wherever they work.

The world of work has been upended by COVID-19, and the effects are likely to be long-lasting. Before the pandemic, there were some 260 million home-based workers (not including domestic or care workers). The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that figure could have doubled, with as many as one in three workers remote working in North America and Europe, and one in six in sub-Saharan Africa.

The rollout of vaccines, mainly in the developed world,  has increased the possibilities of a return to the workplace, but many companies and workers have signalled a wish to retain a degree of home working, after seeing some of the benefits. For employers, these include minimising the risk of contagion and  potentially spending less on expensive office space whilst staff no longer have to spend commuting to and from the workplace.

‘If you’re losing your mind, I’m right there with you’

However, whilst some are enjoying baking bread or taking a stroll during a conference call, and using the commuting time to indulge in new pursuits, others have been craving a return to a more structured work-life routine.

“I tell myself daily that I am grateful to have a job with understanding supervisors and colleagues. But all of it is hard. If you’re also a working mum losing her mind daily, know that I’m right there with you,” says Paulina, a New York-based teleworker.

“I have chaired meetings with a laptop and headphones on one side of a tiny, New York City kitchen while cooking lunch and having a screaming toddler wrapped around my ankles. While all of this is cute once or maybe twice, regular screams of children in the background can only be tolerated for so long. I should know, because I passed that line sometime in July.”

Stories such as this explain why a recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that 41 per cent of people who worked from home considered themselves highly stressed, compared to 25 per cent of those who worked on-site.

“The most effective way to eliminate the risk of contagion in a work context is, for those who can do it, teleworking, says Joaquim Nunes, head of occupational health and safety at the ILO, “But we still need to pay attention to the physical and mental well-being of workers”.

As teleworking is likely to remain an important factor in many people’s jobs, Mr. Nunes says that work-related policies will have to be updated to reflect the new reality.

“There’s a good chance that the rise of teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently change how we live and work. Many governments have realised this, and are taking a fresh look at the rights of employees working from home. For example, companies should ensure that workers do not feel isolated, whilst giving them the right to disconnect, rather than being online 24 hours a day”.

In Chile, a law adopted early in March 2020 goes some way to addressing some of these concerns. The legislation recognizes the right of remote workers to disconnect for at least 12 continuous hours in a 24-hour period. In addition, employers cannot require workers to respond to communications on rest days or holidays.

A healthy home?

Beyond the question of comfort and mental health, is one of physical safety. It is often said that most accidents happen at home, so, if this is where much of the working week is spent, should employers be responsible for making sure apartments aren’t death traps?

“For now, there are no easy answers when it comes to ensuring a suitable home office environment”, says Mr. Nunes. “However, we can say that the same principles that apply to other workplaces apply to teleworkers, in that employers have a general duty of care, as reasonably practicable. Employers can’t control the workplace when staff are working from home, but they can provide ergonomic equipment to workers, such as suitable chairs, and help them to assess their own risks and to learn about how to maintain healthy lifestyles.”

Teleworking is also challenging for enforcement agencies, as usually inspectors do not have free access to the private spaces. One solution to ensure compliance with legislation could be virtual inspections, which are already taking place in Nordic countries on a voluntary basis. “These involve labour inspectors video calling a worker at home, and being shown their work chair, desk, and lighting setup”, explains Mr. Nunes. “These inspections can serve as a way to monitor the home workplace and provide advice, but also raise understandable privacy concerns”.

Frontline fears

Whilst the new teleworkers and their employers grappled with their new reality, a large part of the global workforce had no choice but to go to a physical place of work. The difficulties faced by health care workers were widely reported, but employees in several other industries had to brave the trip to the workplace – sometimes on crowded trains and buses – and, often, interact with other people, at considerable risk to their health.

In the US, these fears led to collective action by workers at Whole Foods, a grocery subsidiary of Amazon. On March 31, 2020, in response to seeing their colleagues testing positive with COVID-19, workers decided to call in sick, and demand sick leave, free coronavirus testing and hazard pay. This was followed in April by work stoppages at some of America’s biggest companies, including Walmart, Target and FedEx.

Whilst early advice on protection and prevention focused on measures such as hand washing, the wearing of masks and gloves, and physical distancing, the ILO quickly realised that more needed to be done to address work-related issues.

“In the workplace, you have to think about more than just the individual worker: the whole environment needs to be protected’, explains Mr. Nunes. “One example that many of us will have come across is in shops and supermarkets, where it is now common to see PVC separators between cashiers and customers. Work surfaces are also being cleaned much more frequently, but this raises other concerns that need to be addressed, such as the potential for skin complaints or respiratory problems caused by the chemicals in cleaning products.”

Whilst areas such as healthcare and retail have been grappling with these issues for several months, other parts of the economy could soon be opening up. In several countries, plans are being made to allow gatherings of large numbers of people to take place, in venues such as concert halls and cinemas, and, heading into summer in the northern hemisphere, the range of permitted tourist activities looks set to expand.

However, for this to take place, and for economies to safely open, governments and employers, in collaboration with workers, will need to make sure that workers in these, and all other industries, are safe at their workplaces, and confident they will not be exposed to unnecessary risks, particularly those related to COVID-19.

Health & Wellness

COVAX and World Bank to Accelerate Vaccine Access for Developing Countries

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COVAX and the World Bank will accelerate COVID-19 vaccine supply for developing countries through a new financing mechanism that builds on Gavi’s newly designed AMC cost-sharing arrangement. This allows AMC countries to purchase doses beyond the fully donor-subsidized doses they are already receiving from COVAX.

COVAX will now be able to make advance purchases from vaccine manufacturers based on aggregated demand across countries, using financing from the World Bank and other multilateral development banks. Participating developing countries will have greater visibility of available vaccines, quantities available, and future delivery schedules, enabling them to secure doses earlier, and prepare and implement vaccination plans more effectively.

This important and timely financing mechanism, made possible now by the World Bank and Gavi teaming up on the AMC cost-sharing arrangement, will allow COVAX to unlock additional doses for low- and middle-income countries,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “As we move beyond initial targets and work to support countries’ efforts to protect increasingly large portions of their populations, World Bank financing will help us advance further towards our goal of bringing COVID-19 under control.”

The scalable mechanism brings together COVAX’s ability to negotiate advance purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers with the World Bank’s ability to provide predictable financing to countries for vaccine purchase, deployment and broader health systems investments. The new mechanism will mitigate risks and uncertainties in country demand and financing ability.

Accessing vaccines remains the single greatest challenge that developing countries face in protecting their people from the health, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “This mechanism will enable new supplies and allow countries to speed up the purchase of vaccines. It will also provide transparency about vaccine availability, prices, and delivery schedules. This is crucial information as governments implement their vaccination plans.”

Countries with approved World Bank vaccine projects that confirm the purchase of additional doses through COVAX will agree with COVAX on the number of doses of a specific vaccine as well as related windows of delivery. On receiving a request from the country, the World Bank will provide COVAX a payment confirmation, allowing COVAX to make advance purchases of large amounts of vaccine doses with manufacturers at competitive prices.

Under the cost-sharing arrangement for AMC countries (92 low- and middle-income countries), COVAX plans to make available up to 430 million additional doses, or enough to fully vaccinate 250 million people, for delivery between late 2021 and mid-2022. There will be several supply offerings where countries will have the opportunity to select and commit to procuring specific vaccines that align with their preferences.

COVAX is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the World Health Organization (WHO). The World Bank and COVAX will work in partnership with UNICEF and the PAHO Revolving Fund as key implementing partners to ensure safe vaccine delivery and supply of materials such as syringes, safety boxes and other items essential for vaccination campaigns.

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Health & Wellness

Study Finds That India Might Have Half Of All Covid-19 Deaths Worldwide

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© UNICEF/Vinay

On July 20th, an analysis that was published of India’s “excess mortality estimates from three different data sources from the pandemic’s start through June 2021 … yields an estimate of 4.9 million excess deaths.” As-of July 20th, the total number of deaths that had been officially reported worldwide from Covid-19 was 4,115,391, and only 414,513 (10%) of those were in India. If this new study is correct, then the possibility exists that around half of all deaths that have occurred, thus far, from Covid-19, could be in India, not merely the currently existing 10% that’s shown in the official figures.

This study doesn’t discuss why the actual number of deaths in India from Covid-19 might be around ten times higher than the official Indian figures, but one reason might be a false attribution of India’s greatly increased death-rate from the Covid-19 epidemic not to Covid-19 but to other causes, such as to Covid-19-related illnesses.

The new study is titled “Three New Estimates of India’s All-Cause Excess Mortality during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, and the detailed version of it can be downloaded here.   The study was funded by U.S.-and-allied billionaires and their foundations and corporations, and by governments that those billionaires also might control. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that its methodology is in any way unscientific or otherwise dubious. The study raises serious questions — it does not, in and of itself, answer any. It’s a serious scientific study.

On 1 August 2020, I headlined “India and Brazil Are Now the Global Worst Coronavirus Nations”, and reported that, “India and Brazil have now overtaken the United States as the world’s worst performers at controlling the cononavirus-19 plague. The chart of the numbers of daily new cases in India shows the daily count soaring more than in any other country except Brazil, whereas in the United States, the daily number of new cases has plateaued ever since it hit 72,278 on July 10th, three weeks ago.” At that time, there was great pressure upon India’s Government to stop the alarming acceleration in the daily numbers of people who were officially counted as being patients (active cases) from the disease, and of dying from it. One way that a government can deal with such pressures is by mis-classifying cases, and deaths, from a disease, as being due to other causes, instead.

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Health & Wellness

Sharp rise in Africa COVID-19 deaths

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A volunteer carer called Trinity is working in a COVID-19 field hospital in Nasrec, Johannesburg. IMF/James Oatway

COVID-19 deaths in Africa have risen sharply in recent weeks, amid the fastest surge in cases the continent has seen so far in the pandemic, the regional office for the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday. 

Fatalities are rising as hospital admissions increase rapidly as countries face shortages in oxygen and intensive care beds. 

COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 40 per cent last week, reaching 6,273, or nearly 1,900 more than the previous week. 

The number is just shy of the 6,294 peak, recorded in January. 

Reaching ‘breaking point’ 

“Deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.  

“Under-resourced health systems in countries are facing dire shortages of the health workers, supplies, equipment and infrastructure needed to provide care to severely ill COVID-19 patients.” 

Africa’s case fatality rate, which is the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases, stands at 2.6 per cent compared to the global average of 2.2 per cent.  

Most of the recent deaths, or 83 per cent, occurred in Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia. 

Six million cases 

COVID-19 cases on the continent have risen for eight consecutive weeks, topping six million on Tuesday, WHO reported. 

An additional one million cases were recorded over the past month, marking the shortest time to reach this grim milestone. Comparatively, it took roughly three months for cases to jump from four million to five million. 

Delta, variants drive surge 

The surge is being driven by public fatigue with key health measures and an increased spread of virus variants.  

The Delta variant, the most transmissible, has been detected in 21 countries, while the Alpha and Beta variants have been found in more than 30 countries each. 

Globally, there are four COVID-19 virus variants of concern.  On Wednesday, a WHO emergency committee meeting in Geneva warned of the “strong likelihood” of new and possibly more dangerous variants emerging and spreading. 

Delivering effective treatment

WHO is working with African countries to improve COVID-19 treatment and critical care capacities.  

The UN agency and partners are also delivering oxygen cylinders and other essential medical supplies, and have supported the manufacture and repair of oxygen production plants. 

“The number one priority for African countries is boosting oxygen production to give critically ill patients a fighting chance,” Dr Moeti said. “Effective treatment is the last line of defence against COVID-19 and it must not crumble.” 

The rising caseload comes amid inadequate vaccine supplies. So far, 52 million people in Africa have been inoculated, which is just 1.6 per cent of total COVID-19 vaccinations worldwide.  

Meanwhile, roughly 1.5 per cent of the continent’s population, or 18 million people, are fully vaccinated, compared with over 50 per cent in some high-income countries. 

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