Opening up economic production from a lockdown, even partially, when the COVID-19 pandemic has not peaked in the country poses an extraordinary challenge. Countries around the world are focusing on making the workplace safe, and issuing guidelines to help workers return to their jobs. Reducing the number of people present at any given time is a universal principle, either through resort to shifts, or arrangements to enable employees to work from home. The Union Health Ministry has addressed the issue through a manual of preventive measures that covers all types of workplaces and depends heavily on behavioural change, with some additional requirements for confined spaces such as offices. Fortunately, the first line of defence against the novel coronavirus is a set of simple measures that involves little expenditure: physical distancing of at least one metre, mandatory use of face masks or cover, frequent hand washing with soap, respiratory etiquette, sanitising contact surfaces and self-monitoring of health. These requirements have by now become familiar to everyone, and employees need only be nudged into adopting them through persistent communication, free provisioning of masks and sanitising materials, and organising office space suitably. Physical distancing of even one metre, if not the ‘do gaz’ or six feet that Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated, does pose difficulties because of the lack of space and density of workers in many places. But employers should see the value of keeping staff attendance at safe levels even within the legally permitted ceiling, which now extends to 50% in specified sectors and even in some government offices. Failure to maintain distancing, more so in a poorly-ventilated, closed environment, gives the virus a free run, as Chennai’s wholesale vegetable market showed starkly.
The Centre’s protocol for symptomatic cases at the workplace, requiring testing, and, where warranted, quarantining of both the worker and close contacts, and a two-day closure of offices experiencing an outbreak, should underscore to employers the importance of prevention. Responsibility, however, does not devolve entirely on offices and establishments, and it is imperative for other activities, such as public transport used by many workers, to meet COVID-19 requirements. Some institutions are mandating installation of the Aarogya Setu app by employees returning to work, when the legal basis of this monitoring mechanism remains shaky and there are no assured benefits in terms of health care. At this stage of the pandemic, when a gradual resumption of economic activity in multiple sectors ranging from construction to food takeaways is a necessity, the most feasible interventions at the workplace are voluntary and those that cost the least. There may still be occasion to resort to intermittent lockdowns if opening up leads to mounting cases. A prudent course would be to navigate the present with a minimalist approach, as the quest for a medical breakthrough makes progress.