PRESIDENT of the Global Services Association of Jamaica (GSAJ) Gloria Henry is confident that the local outsourcing sector is well positioned to withstand the negative impacts of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, despite Nearshore Americas warning about the risks associated with low vaccination in countries such as Jamaica.
“It's still early days and we continue to use strategies we have, and at the height of the pandemic those strategies were effective,” the GSAJ president told Jamaica Observer.
In a recent Nearshore Americas article, Managing Editor Peter Appleby outlined: “Nearshore markets that were stumbled by previous waves of the coronavirus, like Jamaica, Dominican Republic and various Central American countries where vaccinations remain low, are at risk of being bowled over by a new and rapidly spreading variant.”
“Jamaica's situation ahead of the Omicron wave could cause concern. The country's extremely low vaccination rate, coupled with the congested residential Internet connections, could stretch the abilities of stakeholders to provide the excellent service that country is known for,” he added.
As of Friday, January 21, 2021, the Pan American Health Organization estimates that 20.3 per cent of Jamaica's population has been double vaccinated, making it the second-least vaccinated jurisdiction in the Caribbean behind Haiti. On Monday the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention escalated the travel risk of Jamaica to Level Four, warning travellers to “make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel”.
Since the onset of the pandemic, players in the the country's business process outsourcing (BPO) sector have reported COVID-19 clusters within their operations.
However, Henry acknowledged that while there have been a number of predictions about the Omicron variant, it is still relatively new and that there isn't enough data to indicate its severity. She pointed out, too, that the low vaccination rate of the island's population had not deterred investors from the sector.
Drawing a comparison between the current strain and its predecessor, Henry noted that though the Delta variant “was way more invasive in terms of illnesses and negative impact”, players have “worked through those challenges”.
Among the strategies the GSAJ has embarked on are educating employees in the sector on vaccination as well as pushing to achieve 70 per cent voluntary submission of vaccination among its members. So far, Henry revealed, only a few players have not attained the mark.
“In terms of the low vaccination rate, we are currently above the vaccination rate of the country. Is it a concern to us? It is definitely a concern to us because we want to increase our density. We are being challenged in some places to increase the numbers, so the higher the vaccination rate, the better it would be for us to advance that request,” she stated.
In the same vein, itel Executive Chairman Yoni Epstein told Business Observer, “Since the start of the pandemic, we at itel have been looking into the risk factors for our employees, clients and our business. With access to vaccines being in short supply in 2021, until about mid-year, we focused on maintaining the protocols and educating our team about vaccination. However, once the vaccines became more widely available, we made vaccinations available at our sites versus pointing them in the direction of vaccination centres.”
He added that the group has achieved 69 per cent vaccination of staff with its Montego Bay and Kingston campuses reaching over 50 per cent.
In the meantime, Henry said that the work-from-home model that many BPO operators have implemented has helped to reduce transmission of the virus and “has been a very effective strategy…for business continuity purposes and to maintain stability”. But, according to Nearshore Americas, GSAJ director Anand Biradar, Jamaica's infrastructure “didn't support fully fledged work-from-home (WFH)” for the entire industry population.
Notwithstanding, itel's Eptein said the company has moved more to WFH with the onset since the the onset of Omicron.
“Omicron has proven to be more of a productivity challenge versus a medical threat, thankfully. We have put several other measures in place to protect our business and team, and we are seeing the wave come to an end, as absenteeism numbers are returning to more normal levels week by week. To me, this is the light at the end of the tunnel where a return to normalcy or 'living with COVID' is within sight,” he continued.
Henry, for her part, though admitting that there have been connection and connectivity challenges with the island's telecommunications providers, said the GSAJ has worked with Flow to improve marginal connectivity in certain locations.
“We still have some issues in some communities where the connectivity is not stable. We have some other services such as electricity, but we have managed to find ways to work through those challenges and I would say the percentage of challenges that we have relative to the effectiveness of the solution is minimal,” she informed Business Observer.
Asked if the WFH model was a panacea, Henry responded that when combined with in-office operations as a hybrid model it is a solution.
“Essentially, it [hybrid] is the model that we are advocating for because it helps balance several things from a security perspective as well as the incentive framework that we have with the Ministry of Finance, and that's the model that is satisfactory for us,” she explained.
“With the onset of Omicron, we have moved more people to work at home (WAH). Omicron has proven to be more of a productivity challenge versus a medical threat, thankfully. We have put several other measures in place to protect our business and team, and we are seeing the wave come to an end, as absenteeism numbers are returning to more normal levels week by week. To me, this is the light at the end of the tunnel where a return to normalcy or 'living with covid' is within sight,” Henry stated.