Op-Ed: COVID, Is There an End in Sight?

This Op-Ed was written by Maria-Fernanda Garza, first President of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), President of ICC Mexico, and Regional Coordinator for the Americas and by Dr. Scott Ratzan, Executive Director of BP2C. La traducción al español está disponible aquí.

We are all getting tired of COVID, as it threatens our way of living, how we operate our business, and our economic prospects. Yet, the pandemic rages on, with over 6 million people likely dead globally before it is over. As of January 19, 2022, the Latin American and Caribbean region had almost 1.57 million deaths (28.2% of deaths worldwide with 8.38% of global population).

In one of the world’s most vaccinated regions—Latin America and the Caribbean— COVID is slowing as more than 60% of the population is fully vaccinated. However many experts say this is not enough while the region remains particularly vulnerable to Omicron.  As there is slow administration of booster shots and the high reliance of some countries (Agentina, Chile and Peru ) on Chinese vaccines that have less efficacy against the new variant, the end game may be elusive

While vaccination efforts continue, many governments in Latin America are trying various interventions. For example, Argentina and Mexico are liberal in their approach. Argentina has refrained from imposing movement restrictions and is even promoting domestic tourism via cash credits for travellers. Mexico has remained open to visitors and retained a strong tourism season.

Other countries have adopted stricter measures. Peru imposed a nighttime curfew and tightened capacity limits in public spaces. Ecuador has delayed all in-person schooling. Bolivia will require a vaccination or a negative PCR test to access most public spaces. In Brazil, many cities canceled carnival parades.

Vaccination mandates by employers have not been uniform. In Brazil, the government has prohibited companies from demanding vaccination from their employees, even though there is a movement from the private sector to encourage vaccination. There is a similar situation in Mexico, where  labor law prohibits making vaccination mandatory.  In Peru, employers may suspend employment of an unvaccinated worker, without paying remuneration, if they cannot perform remote work.In Costa Rica, vaccination is mandatory for public sector workers, and private employers are allowed to require employee vaccination. The role of business has been largely shaped by government decrees.

What will the future look like? Experts now suggest that we need new ways to tackle pandemic. WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus offered ideas in December 2021: “Vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. Countries can, and must, prevent the spread of Omicron with measures that work today. It’s not vaccines instead of masks, it’s not vaccines instead of distancing, it’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.”

The situation in Latin America is different to that of Europe and North America, where distribution no longer poses significant problems and the biggest issue is not only convincing but understanding what we need to do to incorporate  the unwilling to get vaccinated. While multiple factors have so far prevented vaccination and a full-fledged response, poor distribution of vaccines has been an issue. The private sector has not been enlisted to assist meaningfully even though there is experience, capacity and willingness residing in companies across the region. Only in Peru – where more than 90% of people have two vaccines – is the private sector collaborating with logistical support to the State, a perfect example of the benefits of public-private cooperation. So even though regional vaccination rates are relatively high, all point to the need to increase vaccination rates and preventive measures as much as possible, and to prepare for medications that should be available in 2022. Two years into the pandemic, the central role for the Latin American business community is in advancing prudent policies, and supporting governments’ vaccine delivery strategies to muster resources to get as many citizens fully vaccinated. Each country and each business community can adopt a tailored approach to protect workers, customers and their communities.

Companies can also sign on to a Global COVID-19 Workplace Challenge, and be part of a movement that demonstrates the trustworthy role of employers to protect workers and elevate vaccine literacy. Those joining the Challenge work across sectors with efforts to teach people what vaccines do, how, and why they are safe and effective. In the Latin American context, with a multitude of vaccines, communicating clearly so that people understand the efficacy of vaccines – traditionally a role for public health authorities – the business community could set expectations with effective, trustworthy information.

Finally, while vaccination is the main weapon, promoting the COVID vaccine as “the only solution” has implications for undermining trust while neglecting and undercutting existing strategies such as masking, testing, social distancing and ventilation. We should also begin to prepare for the equitable distribution of medicines to treat COVID. Currently, the vaccines are effective (aka good enough) in preventing disease and hospitalization, and helping us return to a post-pandemic (aka endemic) world. In short, we support the message of the WHO Director General ­– for all of us to work together in:Doing it all. Doing it consistently. Doing it well.”