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Capitalism alone won’t deliver herd immunity

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Vials with coronavirus disease vaccine labels are seen in front of a U.S. flag in this illustration picture taken March 19, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

NEW YORK, Aug 6 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Get the shot or stay away: That’s what U.S. companies from United Airlines (UAL.O) to BlackRock (BLK.N) are telling employees as Covid-19 continues to rage. That helps get the population closer to herd immunity while reducing deaths. But there aren’t enough of these businesses to fill the vacuum left by government.

Morgan Stanley (MS.N), Salesforce.com (CRM.N) and Microsoft (MSFT.O) are on the growing list of corporations giving non-remote employees an ultimatum on jabs. But these edicts are low-risk in Wall Street and Silicon Valley, where most staff are already vaccinated. Admitting uninoculated colleagues might prompt more walkouts than demanding shots for all.

It takes a brave chief executive to lay down the law outside these highly-paid, vaccine-friendly spaces. Most haven’t. Walmart (WMT.N) and Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA.O) demand vaccines for staff who work in U.S. offices but not stores. Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) requires shots for new U.S. employees but not existing ones. Even partial diktats are challenging in sectors where low rates of vaccination coincide with a scarcity of labor.

Some are testing the limits anyway. Meat-processor Tyson Foods (TSN.N) demands staff get vaccinated by Nov. 1 and is giving them $200 for their time. Those who still refuse – and can’t claim a valid exemption – will have to find a new employer. United laid out a similar ultimatum on Friday, though over 80% of its flight attendants and 90% of pilots are already vaccinated.

Government decrees would make things simple but are unlikely. New York City wants proof of being jabbed to enter restaurants or theaters, as does France; Britain and the United States overall do not. Saudi Arabia has made all workplaces vaccinated-only zones, but its autocratic system means it can. There’s little chance of blanket mandates becoming the norm elsewhere.

The resulting lack of leadership hurts those already bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Half of unvaccinated Americans have household income below $50,000, a Census Bureau survey shows. And Covid-19 death rates are highest in sectors where job vacancies have spiked, like food, agriculture, transport and logistics, according to a University of California San Francisco study in January.

The danger is that industries that most need vaccine mandates are ones where employers have the least leverage over workers. To conquer Covid-19 it’s governments, not CEOs, that must call the shots.

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CONTEXT NEWS

- United Airlines said on Aug. 6 that all of its U.S. employees must be vaccinated against Covid-19 by Oct. 25, or within five weeks of vaccines getting full regulatory approval if that is sooner.

- Employees who get vaccinated before Sept. 20 and those that have already received their shots will get an additional day of pay, United Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart said in a letter to employees. United’s pilot union said the order required further negotiation and that some of its members disagreed with the airline’s plan.

- Meat processor Tyson Foods said on Aug. 3 it would require all staff to be inoculated by Nov. 1, adding that almost half of staff had already received the vaccine. The policy is subject to ongoing discussions with local trade unions.

- Just under half of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated as of Aug. 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, equivalent to 61% of adults – roughly the same as the level in Europe.

Editing by Swaha Pattanaik and Amanda Gomez

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