Survey: Most Businesses Were Not Prepared For Pandemic
MARK BRODIE: A new survey of businesses from 29 countries across the globe finds many were not prepared for a pandemic, and almost half are doing some kind of contact tracing. The report was done by ASU's College of Health Solutions and the World Economic Forum with support from the Rockefeller Foundation; it's the first of three planned surveys. The goal was to find out how employers are dealing with [COVID-19] and what changes they're making, or not making, to keep everyone in their environment safe. This first report aims to establish a benchmark during the first six months of the pandemic to say what businesses are doing now and how the decisions made today will affect those firms and their communities going forward. Mara Aspinall is a professor of practice in biomedical diagnostics at ASU's College of Health Solutions, and she joins me to talk more about this. So, Mara, how did you find — how did what you found compared to what you were expecting to hear?
MARA ASPINALL: Well, first of all, we asked about preparedness. Are they prepared for the pandemic? So on that we found that only 36% of companies had emergency response plans at all. And those who did, only 39% had anticipated a pandemic — an epidemic. That was the first insight we had. We then asked them, what are they doing to take action vis-à-vis the pandemic? And sadly and overwhelmingly, more than 60% said they were making temporary or 50% making permanent reductions in their staff. Those were two of the most important insights that we had. We then moved on to what are they doing about it? How can this come together? And here our biggest question was, are they testing? Because we believe that testing is a core part of response in keeping workers well. And what we found here, I think, was also a surprise to many. Only 17% of companies around the world, again, more than 1,100, were testing their workers on a regular basis.
BRODIE: Do you think that those are related? The fact that a lot of businesses weren't prepared for this and especially early on getting tests was not the easiest thing to do. I mean, do you think that those two are related, the fact that a lot of businesses say they weren't looking for something like this to happen and then the fact that most of them were not testing their employees?
ASPINALL: I think that's exactly right. There was a tremendous amount of confusion. And to a large degree, much of that exists today. When we asked companies why are they not testing? Top three reasons: Too costly, too complicated and too much concern about test accuracy. So I think that that made it that much more difficult for companies to jump on and test early on. I do believe that we will see a market change in this in 2021. Even with a vaccine, we will see far more companies testing their workers.
BRODIE: I want to ask you about mask policies, because it seems like based on what you found, a lot of companies are requiring their workers to wear masks, but not all of them.
ASPINALL: That is true. It really depends on the industry. And for the most part, those companies that are in industries that are interacting with the public regularly or have no way to socially distance their workers, are employing mask policies more than 95% of the time. But for many of what might be called traditional white collar office-based businesses, if they're back in the office, not all of them are enforcing a mask policy.
BRODIE: How do you expect businesses and governments and other policymakers to use this data going forward?
ASPINALL: First of all, it helps businesses benchmark what they are doing. I think, secondly, it presents the baseline for government decision makers, whether they be in cities, states or at the national level. This puts the baseline as to where employers are this fall. What I believe will happen is employers are going to play a much bigger role in pandemic response in 2021. They need to. In the past, we had employers who were giving flu shots on a very regular basis. In many states, it was the plurality of flu shots happened in employers. We need employers to be part of the effort. We need to get employees back to the workplace and have the companies step up and be part of this effort.
BRODIE: That's interesting because, you know, economically, we keep hearing — and your report touched on this — about how businesses have had to let workers go either temporarily or permanently. We've heard about the number of people who are unemployed at this point, both here in Arizona and around the country. And your report also pointed out that a lot of these firms reported revenue losses as well. So does it make it harder for employers to play as big a role as, as maybe you think they should in trying to get us out of this pandemic, given some of those headwinds working against them?
ASPINALL: Well, I think it needs to be an integrated effort. For employers to work together with the municipalities in which they are located is a critical piece. For many areas, the state, local and federal government are still footing the cost for the vaccines. So I talk about employers as part of the solution to integrate into a distribution network so we're not relying on a small number of locations and a small number of places to do that.
BRODIE: So you're going to be continuing to do these surveys into the new year. I'm curious what you will be looking for to see if there are changes, if things maybe are getting a little bit better in this area.
ASPINALL: Yes, we will do the survey twice more — in February and in June. And we want to understand first is, is there a difference between companies that have had broad testing, broad masking, physical distances? Have they had different results in terms of outbreaks versus those who didn't? Secondly, we want to understand how the concerns of returning to work have changed. Thirdly, we want to understand the new policies that they're putting in place. And fourth, and maybe most importantly, how has going back to the workplace gone? Are there companies, and I'm sure there will be, who will use this as an opportunity to fundamentally change the workplace and have not, as in the past, 80% at the workplace, 20% at home? I think we might see that flipped, and how they are shifting that workplace and their cost to accommodate that.
BRODIE: All right. That is Mara Aspinall, professor of practice in ASU's College of Health Solutions. Mara, it was nice to talk to you. Thank you, Be well.
ASPINALL: Good to talk to you, too.