Vaccine mandates would show business can actually lead on social problems

Your boss will see you now.
Your boss will see you now.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Osorio
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Business leaders eagerly took on a much broader remit when they redefined the purpose of corporations in 2019. “A company serves society at large,” was the cry from Davos in early 2020. The message, plainly, is that business can address social problems just like governments and other institutions.

Now it’s time for business to cash that check by taking the lead on mandating Covid-19 vaccines.

In rich countries where vaccine supply now far outstrips demand, the remaining holdouts threaten to prolong the pandemic for everyone, including the majority still awaiting vaccines. This tragedy of the global commons will not be solved through persuasion alone.

Governments, which once saved the world from smallpox by mandating inoculation for everybody, have made clear they aren’t interested in repeating the feat. Most have opted for limited mandates among public-sector workers, as the US is doing. In Europe, the trend now is to require vaccines in stores and restaurants, but not workplaces. Where are the private-sector employers, who could do so much to add to the ranks of the vaccinated?

Using their influence

Perhaps most telling about the politics of vaccination is that the only country thus far willing to impose a truly broad mandate on its people is Saudi Arabia. But the public service announcements and eccentric incentives preferred by most democracies to cajole people into jabs are clearly not getting the job done.

So it has to be the private sector.

The remarkably rapid development of coronavirus vaccines is already a capitalist success story, arguing strongly for the role of private investors making risky bets that could help solve huge social problems. Moderna will rightly lead every impact-investing slide deck for years to come, along with for-profit carbon capture projects and crypto wallets for the unbanked.

But if the business world wants to be seen as leaders of society, not just herders of capital, it needs to deploy some influence as well.

Amid declining faith in most other institutions—governments, media, even non-profits—companies still broadly enjoy the public trust. Over two-thirds of people in Edelman’s 2021 survey agreed that “CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems.”

No institution is more trusted than one’s own employer. In most countries, Edelman found, employers are the most trusted “to do what is right” and to provide reliable information.

Employers ought to requite that trust by mandating that their staff who work indoors with other employees are vaccinated for Covid-19. Public health experts agree it’s the only safe way to operate an office, factory, or warehouse right now.

Making tough calls

Legal ambiguity is frequently cited by businesses reluctant to impose mandates, but often doing the right thing—in this case, saving lives—requires taking on some risk. (Also, vaccine mandates are clearly legal in the US, and very likely to be upheld by Europe’s human-rights court.)

Businesses in tech, finance, and media tend to be the most progressive on employee relations, and many of us (including Quartz) have started to require that employees coming back to offices are fully vaccinated. But even in these industries, a lot of big companies are opting for half-measures instead, such as segregating unvaccinated employees or requiring weekly Covid tests.

Back in December, when a bunch of top CEOs discussed the pandemic at a Yale summit, mandates were not particularly controversial: 78% agreed that coronavirus vaccines should be required (pdf, p. 8) at offices, whenever they reopened. In the months since, the same CEOs have surely consulted their more-cautious lawyers and seen how contentious vaccination debates can get. It’s a hard call to make, no doubt.

CEOs love to wax heroic about making the tough decisions. And some, like restaurateur Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, are making them. But the vast majority of employers, large and small, are for now just taking the same laissez-faire approach to science as their governments. What an opportunity this could be to show that the public’s growing faith in business to solve societal problems may actually be warranted.