Opinion: Vaccination policies an opportunity for CEOs to lead

If you care about the future of our community and hope business will return to normal, there’s only one thing to do: insist on vaccination.

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read August 31, 2021

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - AUGUST 16: A sign reads 'Proof Of Vaccine Required For Entry' at a bar in the French Quarter on August 16, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mario Tama / Getty Images

Throughout the last 18 months, Ottawa business owners have faced one tough decision after another. But here’s one that should be very straightforward: whether to require vaccines for employees and customers entering their premises.

Business owners are leaders, not just of their organizations, but in the community. And no issue requires more leadership at this moment than ensuring the highest possible vaccination levels. For months, entrepreneurs and CEOs have felt powerless as the pandemic has threatened lives and caused economic damage. Now, finally, there’s something that all of us can do. The most effective way to accelerate the end of the pandemic is to require vaccinations where people work, shop, and do business.

Despite the loud voices of a small number of anti-vaccine protesters, the data is conclusive. Almost three-quarters of Canadians over 12 years of age are now fully vaccinated, but 99 per cent of current cases of COVID come from the remaining 25 per cent who are either unvaccinated or have had only one shot.

Not only are vaccines working, but the early evidence suggests that measures to require them are also effective. Since health officials in British Columbia announced the creation of a vaccine card about a week ago, the number of people under 40 registering for their first dose tripled. Quebec also saw a spike in first doses after announcing its own restrictions on unvaccinated residents. By comparison, while those increases were happening in other provinces, Ontario’s rate of first doses remained flat.

It’s expected that the Ontario government will introduce a vaccine passport system this week. But businesses don’t have to wait for government policy, nor limit the scope of their own rules to whatever Queen’s Park proposes.

Already, major Canadian banks and other employers have announced they will require their employees to be vaccinated before returning to work. Significant local employers including Algonquin College and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario have announced similar policies. And the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group has announced you won’t be able to go to an Ottawa Redblacks or Ottawa 67’s game without being fully vaccinated.

To some people, clearly, this feels like an uncomfortable, intrusive step that threatens individual rights. And not all of these concerns should be dismissed as senseless anti-vax rhetoric. We don’t normally restrict someone’s ability to find employment or enter business establishments based on their personal health choices. And sometimes in a crisis, it can be too easy to get caught up in a solution without thinking about the broader implications on personal freedoms.

But those concerns must be balanced against the greater risk of the pandemic continuing. Within a few weeks, it will be 18 months since the crisis began in our community. Without high vaccination levels, it will continue to linger. More people will die, unnecessarily. And the restrictions imposed on all of us, included the fully vaccinated, will persist. It’s one thing when lives are lost and businesses collapse because of events beyond our control. It’s another when a proven solution is available and not enough people choose to use it.

A few years ago, business leaders could focus on their companies and stay out of public policy debates that didn’t have a direct impact on them. Today, there’s an expectation from employees and customers that businesses both share and live up to their values in areas like equity, diversity, and inclusion, and the environment and climate change. It’s no longer acceptable to be neutral.

This is an opportunity for every CEO and entrepreneur in Ottawa to show leadership on the most important public health issue of our time. If you care about the future of our community, want to protect the health and safety of your employees, and hope business will return to normal as soon as possible, there’s only one thing to do: insist on vaccination.

Mark Sutcliffe is a longtime Ottawa entrepreneur, writer, broadcaster, and podcaster. He hosts the Digging Deep podcast, the Mark Sutcliffe show on CityNews, is a business coach and adviser, and is a chair with  TEC Canada. His column appears every two weeks.