While Work-From-Home might have worked for professionals in profiles that could be managed remotely, staffers employed in essential services and government agencies had resumed duties in brick and mortar workspaces many months ago. In TN, Chief Minister MK Stalin extended the lockdown till Aug 9, while refraining from announcing any fresh relaxations. Urging citizens to step out only if it’s unavoidable, the CM has authorised collectors and commissioners to enforce selective lockdowns in areas where crowds are seen gathering. The order comes in the backdrop of a marginal increase in COVID-19 cases in the state.
It may be recalled that last week, TN’s Directorate of Public Health and Preventive Medicine had put together a 12-point guideline for office goers and their families too. It was mandated that workers and their kin take both doses of the vaccine in order to be able to access offices and industrial set-ups. Treating workers as a high priority group, the government said all enterprises with a staff strength exceeding 300 employees or 10,000 sq feet of space must employ a qualified in-house health inspector, which will be paid for out of the company’s pocket. This inspector will be tasked with monitoring and implementation of health initiatives within the office campus.
The director of Public Health Dr TS Selvavinayagam instructed all district health authorities to ensure the firms enforce the guidelines in letter and spirit. The new instructions were issued under the TN Public Health Act, after a state task force committee met last month and brought up concerns which include staff transportation, upkeep of living quarters or dormitories, canteen, and common areas. Apart from the enforcement of social distancing within offices, or the provisioning of partitioning between work desks, enterprises have been asked to set up CCTVs to monitor if staffers are wearing masks at all times.
While the instructions will pave the way for offices to be more cognizant about staff safety, there are concerns of compliance. Deep-pocketed I-T firms or behemoths working in financial services or retail, might already have the in-built infrastructure to ensure things are moving as per plan. However, considering 90 per cent of offices in India, the goals of distancing and partitioning seem like a cruel joke. Take the example of a cooperative bank or the workshop of a jewellery store. It is probable that these are tightly packed workspaces where there might not even be a window. The nature of these industries is such that staggered attendance might not be a possibility, as most given workdays are packed to the brim with customers of all kinds. It is amidst such a claustrophobic milieu that the government expects social distancing to be followed. The pandemic has been a time when several firms were compelled to lay off staffers owing to cash crunch. So every additional investment that burns a hole in the pocket, will only be given a cursory glance. It might be anyone’s guess, as to how many CCTVs can be installed just to track the masking behaviour of employees. And the lesser said about official visitors, the better, as many still have to be reminded to raise their face masks over their noses, when speaking to someone.
Reopenings can use a lot more realistic targets as far as office administrations go. Rather than issuing blanket orders that ignore the unorganised nature of back-offices and MSMEs, it would be encouraging if the government offered the industrial sector tangible benefits like think-tank approved guidelines that would ease the re-entry process. The provision of hassle-free, emergency loans to mitigate infrastructural requirements in the post COVID-era could also go a long way in making the transition smoother.