Businesses have the responsibility to invest in health and safety when governments fail to

With governments seemingly giving up their responsibility to keep people safe, it is time for businesses to take the lead on health and safety. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

With the lifting of public health measures all over North America and Europe, some governments seem to believe the pandemic is over. Restaurants and theatres are operating at full capacity and without proof of vaccination. PCR testing has been scaled back or nearly eliminated. Masks are gone — even in crowded and poorly ventilated school classrooms.

This is despite many people continuing to be highly susceptible to the disease — especially as vaccine-derived and prior infection immunity starts to wane — booster campaigns stall and increasingly contagious variants keep emerging.

And while medical professionals have been driven beyond the breaking point and are quitting in droves, thousands of people continue to die and the number of people living with debilitating long-term effects of the disease are growing.

By any objective measure, it is not the pandemic that is over, but rather government efforts to minimize the human toll of the pandemic. With governments seemingly giving up their responsibility to keep people safe, it it time for businesses to take the lead on health and safety.

Corporate social responsibility

Protecting the health and safety of employees, customers and suppliers in the absence of government mandates is the very essence of corporate social responsibility. While the definition of corporate social responsibility has evolved over the decades, it is now known as a company’s obligation to act in service of the public good.

Early in the pandemic, many businesses invested in the health and safety of customers and employees by offering “hero pay.”

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But recently, we have seen some businesses go in the opposite direction. Instead of investing in protections for workers and customers, airline CEOs have demanded that mask mandates be ended and business leaders have been some of the most vocal advocates of going “back to normal.”

At the start of the pandemic, many companies provided frontline workers with extra pay to both incentivize and thank them for putting their lives at risk for their job.

It appears as though businesses found it easier to be socially responsible when there was a clear social consensus about COVID-19 and governments were willing to provide clear guidance. But now, more than ever before, it is time for businesses to step up.

Fighting the lonely fight

We expect businesses to be more socially and environmentally responsible by minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and eliminating socially harmful business practices, such as sweatshop labour — why don’t we do the same for COVID-19?

We should be applying similar pressures to businesses that are unwilling to mandate masks for employees and customers during surges, thereby contributing to spread of COVID-19.

Similarly, we should commend the businesses that are fighting the lonely fight to protect customers and employees. Chapman’s Ice Cream, for instance, has promoted vaccination among its employees and paid for regular testing for those who refuse to be vaccinated. As a result, it has become a frequent target for anti-vaxxers.

Apricot Tree Café, a restaurant in Mississauga, Ont., has sought to ensure safety for its staff and patrons by investing in HEPA filters and carbon dioxide monitors. These practices are recognized by public health experts as crucial for combating airborne pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19.

More businesses should take inspiration from these two companies and make good on their commitment to corporate social responsibility. If companies truly care for their employees and customers, they will prioritize their safety and well-being.

Business schools have a role to play

There is a key voice that has been missing from this conversation — business schools. This silence might be because business schools, like any other faculty, defer to university administrators to implement government-mandated COVID-19 health and safety policies.

At the same time, health and safety issues have not been identified as a “business issue,” unlike forced labour or climate change, both of which have been identified as business responsibilities. This needs to change.

Business schools cannot remain silent in the face of society’s ongoing failure to address a crisis that is vastly disruptive, despite widespread availability of solutions, including masking in crowded spaces, improving ventilation, offering sick days to employees and encouraging or mandating up-to-date vaccination regimens.

Business schools have the responsibility to ensure future business leaders are aware of and ready to take on current and emerging global challenges, including pandemics.

Business schools conduct cutting edge research and educate future business leaders. They have the responsibility to ensure leaders are aware of and ready to take on current and emerging “grand challenges,” like the rampant inequality that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Business schools should lead by example by modelling best business practices and equipping future business leaders with the skills to tackle the issue of health and safety as a business responsibility — even beyond the current pandemic. Speaking up and taking the lead on public health and safety will prove that the business world is ready and willing to take on other pressing issues, like climate change.

Carrying out voluntary actions for social good is not easy and, in our increasingly polarized society, these efforts may alienate some stakeholders. For example, customers that just want to “move on” from the pandemic might be displeased by businesses imposing mask mandates, but that is the essence of corporate social responsibility — doing the right thing, even when it’s hard.

Maxim Voronov receives funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Burkard Eberlein receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).