We’re all in this together

This week’s stories from seclusion article includes on-the-ground reports from all over the world. From New Zealand to Central America, we hear from Members about both their personal experiences and their country’s experiences with the coronavirus.

Shami Shearer – New Zealand

I would attribute New Zealand’s success in “eliminating” COVID-19 to three key factors:

  1. The tyranny of distance worked in our favour and we were able to get ahead of the curve by learning from overseas where health systems were overwhelmed in countries that didn’t lock down quickly or strongly enough;
  2. Our leaders listened to medical, science and data professionals who were outspoken in the media. The government’s responsiveness to their feedback lent credibility to the harsh measures, and no doubt helped with general public buy in as it seemed we were being led by public health experts rather than politicians; and
  3. Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, presented a masterclass in crisis communication with many tuning into their daily 1pm press conferences


We have been fortunate in New Zealand that the government has been quite open in sharing its models and the considerations that have gone into forming the strategic response. (For those who are interested, you can check out the NZ government health site.

I have been happily surprised with the increased prevalence of STEM professionals sharing their views in mainstream media in the past couple of months. Some of the illustrations developed in New Zealand have even been shared around the world (see some examples here). Meanwhile, the New Zealand Police teamed up with one of my favourite TV shows, Wellington Paranormal, to deliver serious messages in a light-hearted manner.

All this open and well-crafted communication fortified our “team of five million” as we “united against COVID-19”.

Personally, I found there were pros and cons to working from home during lockdown. I really enjoyed walking my dog in the middle of the day and stopping for a cup of tea with my family who were also working/schooling from home. My main challenge was trying to look professional on a zoom call while sitting on my bed with a laptop on my knee and trying to disguise my increasingly mullet hairstyle. I was not brave enough to attempt a home lockdown cut although some of my colleagues managed this quite successfully!

Now we are pretty confident that there is no community spread and are starting to pop those bubbles – I’ve relished catching up with friends and family in person, visiting the library, eating out at local cafés, getting my hair cut…and even just the “normality” of going into the office for work.

I am immensely grateful to be an actuary. My training has developed my ability to assess and respond to risk and change, valuable skills as we deal with the huge uncertainty of the situation. Now I am working on enhancing my communication. As an actuary, all too often we have to deliver unwanted messages. How tremendous would it be to deliver them with humour like the New Zealand Police or in an empathetic but firm manner like Jacinda Ardern? To quote her message from 17th March “Be strong, be kind, we will be OK”.

Source: Newstalk ZB


Andy Yang – Hong Kong

The story: My family and I returned to Hong Kong from our Chinese New Year Holiday in Malaysia on Sunday 2 Feb 2020.

During our time in Malaysia, we had been sufficiently concerned by the reports about the virus from China to visit some pharmacies to try to buy some masks but “no stock” was the answer we got.  We could not meet one of our friends as their employer required a quarantine if any employees met anyone from Greater China (China, HK, Macao, Taiwan).  We were told that schools in Hong Kong would be closed for a couple of weeks (which turned out to be almost four months).  We were asked by family whether we would consider staying in Malaysia as “it was safer” but we decided that we were woefully unprepared for a long stay and came back to Hong Kong.

On that Sunday, we went to the supermarket and were taken aback to find that all the rice, tissue paper, toilet paper, paper towels, masks and hand sanitisers had disappeared off the shelves.  Other dry goods like sugar, noodles and canned food were also in short supply.  Most of these reappeared over the next few weeks.  After Europe began to have issues, pasta, pasta sauces, and flour were in short supply.  This was a good lesson about global supply chains.

By Tuesday, my children were able to start virtual classes.  The school could do this quickly because they had previously done it before during the height of the protests in Hong Kong in late 2019.  My children remarked that they missed the social aspect of school, but their productivity increased in some cases as there were fewer distractions.  My wife had to work for three weeks at home and her productivity went up as she did not have to travel and because the workday got much longer.

There was social pressure and preparedness to wear masks to protect each other from the COVID-19 virus.  On a bus that first week of February, I witnessed the driver telling off someone for not wearing one and she was given one by another kind passenger.   Almost all locals wear masks, but it is telling that Western expatriates were less likely to wear them, at least until the second wave of infections came.  This second wave was caused by people returning from overseas (where they had gone as it was thought safer) after it was clear that Hong Kong’s effort in containing the virus was pretty good (four deaths vs a population of 7.5 million as I write this).

During the last four months, we hardly went out except for food shopping and necessary errands e.g. medical appointments. As I write this on 26 May, my children have just restarted half-day physical school and restrictions are beginning to lift. 

For the specific questions:

Unique situation: Wearing masks was key to the control of COVID-19 in Hong Kong.  I suspect that the common use of masks in Northern Asia and the SARS experience may have contributed to the usage.  Every so often, I reflect about the opposition to mask wearing in Western countries and the difficulty in tolerating no more than one or two months of social distancing.  What happens if something like this happens again?

Facilitator: I think the relatively high penetration of fast broadband in Hong Kong makes virtual school and work easier.  Not everyone has access to this – we are very lucky.

Restrictions: We have experienced a reduction in social and physical activities.  We are fortunate to have space in the apartment and common areas to keep sane.  I am concerned that some businesses in Hong Kong have closed and I think we need to support the remaining ones otherwise they will not be there any longer when we need them.

Professionally, I have heard that there is less interest in hiring generally.  However, there is still demand in IT related roles such as programming and data analytics.  I understand that expatriates considering Asia as a destination may accept leaving their families in their home countries but this creates other stresses and possible tax/domicile issues may arise.

 “Silver lining” – I have learnt to use video meeting tools and watched YouTube videos on how to improve video and audio on Zoom meetings.  I am very pleased that the technology allowed us to hold a Panel discussion on Data Journeys today, where we had over 260 participants from Australia, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries.  We invited non-members and students from various bodies to join so the capability to get people together across countries and entities to share CPD is something that is exciting and worth exploring.  I am confident we will get better at doing this.

Queenie Chow – China

My name is Queenie and I like to call myself an “actuary without borders” – a passionate actuary working in global development and inclusive insurance. I currently work with MIC@Milliman (Microinsurance Center) as the Microinsurance Specialist in the Asia-Pacific region. My work typically brings me across the various emerging countries where we work to make insurance accessible to all, inclusive of rural China. As a result of the pandemic, I have been working from my home base in Melbourne since early March.

With Wuhan being the world’s first epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, our microinsurance project in Shaanxi also had to be put on hold shortly after 2020 started. Being the first lockdown nation of this pandemic, people were confined from travelling, schools were closed, residents isolated in their homes. As restriction barriers begin to lift in China, checkpoints are placed throughout the city and the coronavirus tracking app was put in place to identify risk of infection. Everyone moving about the city is required to present a QR code on their mobile phones which rates the user’s risk of catching the virus. Suddenly, the green code granting unrestricted movement was the greatest treat to freedom of movement whilst red meant individuals were to be quarantined for two weeks.

In Mainland China, we have observed the emergence of various insurance related innovations since the pandemic. One of the more well-known one is the COVID-19 insurance program launched by the ride-hailing giant Didi-Chuxing providing medical emergency allowances to drivers. Insurtech players have also introduced technology-driven products such as the AI-driven self-evaluation tool (Haola Tech), complementary chatbot for community monitoring in COVID-19 (LingBan AlaaS), “zero-contact” advance hospital payment system (Ins for Renascence) and telematics technology applied in fleet transporting of medical supplies (GetyAI).

With our work all around the world, the pandemic has hit our work in a way never thought of before. Unsurprisingly, we are also seeing stakeholders working in the micro-segment becoming more digital and field work is also executed in a very different manner within the virtual environment. As per other industries, face-to-face interactions have been replaced by virtual interactions like phone calls. In reaching the micro-segment during this pandemic, other technological channels observed include SMS, IVR and online.

I love being around people and moreover travelling. For someone who rarely stays in my home city for more than a month consecutively, the thought of having to be confined at home infinitely was nerve-wrecking! To my greatest surprise, the silver lining during this pandemic is the genuine revelation I found in learning meditation and mindfulness. I have been constantly reminded of the need to globalise compassion and build a supply chain of gratitude in appreciating the greater goodness in our lives. I have also finally found time to tick off one item on my bucket list (which I would highly recommend) – doing “The science of well-being” from Yale.

A quote which encouraged me from Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi – be resilient, hopeful and believe in humanity!

Jon and Jay Harwood – Central America

For much of Q1 2020, Central America seemed far removed from the pandemic sweeping the world. In early March we were feeling #blessed that we were nowhere near the virus. How quickly things change. On 6 March, Costa Rica became the first Central American country to confirm a case, a tourist from the United States. Two weeks later, as borders closed and travel alerts reached level four worldwide, we went into voluntary self isolation.

Central America was one of the last regions in the world to record its first case of coronavirus. This provided an opportunity to take advantage of extra preparation time and to observe how other countries responded to the crisis. The majority of Central American government responses have involved swift and drastic measures.

A Snapshot of Central America

Central America is a tropical region on the isthmus between Mexico and Colombia. It’s broadly characterised by a young population, lower concentration towards urban centres and a large informal workforce. Apart from the Commonwealth of Belize, all Central American countries are presidential republics. Their health care systems are less resourced than western countries.

Case Study: El Salvador

El Salvador led the Central Americas in proactively fighting the pandemic, announcing strict measures prior to any confirmed cases. Measures included shutting down all education activities, closing borders and international travel to foreigners, instigating stay at home curfews and setting up quarantine centres and temporary hospitals throughout the country. We were impressed at the transparency of their pandemic reporting with a website dedicated to visualising all the relevant pandemic statistics by age, gender, region, source country of infection and even numbers of arrests for breaking quarantine!

Police Patrol in Gerado Barrios Square, after home quarantine orders given

COVID-19 Experience for El Salvador and Central America

As at May 26, El Salvador had registered 2042 cases of COVID-19, 36 deaths and 77,482 tests administered. When controlling for population, the number of cases is broadly equivalent or better than Australia during the initial stages of the pandemic. This indicates their measures have slowed the proliferation of the virus in the country. However the ‘curve’ has not flattened to the same extent and is likely to continue to trend above Australia in coming weeks. The comparative mortality experience is poorer than Australia, unsurprising given the difference in the health infrastructure between the two countries.

More broadly, the countries of Central America have been able to slow the community transmission of the virus through lockdown measures at a similar or better rate than Australia thus far, albeit with mixed results from mortality. Costa Rica has contained the spread at this stage with 956 confirmed cases and only 10 deaths. The government moved quickly to contain the pandemic with similar measures to El Salvador. From mid May Costa Rica started the process of slowly reopening its economy. Panama has struggled with the virus with 11,183 cases and 310 deaths and is following closer trajectories to the United states.

Our Observations From Nicaragua

Nicaragua has taken a different approach to its neighbours. It has not imposed lockdown measures, however neighbouring countries have shut their borders and international airlines halted services, effectively isolating the country. The government releases COVID-19 information weekly, with the latest official tally at 759 confirmed cases and 35 deaths. Citizens and businesses have taken measures independently with the majority of hotels closed since late March and restaurants either closed or only providing takeaway or delivery. Mask usage noticeably increased after COVID-19 was reported in the country. Supermarkets are implementing measures such as temperature checks and mandatory mask usage. We have been in self imposed lockdown for the last two months and only leave our accommodation for groceries every two weeks and to extend our visa each month. It is still early days here and time will tell whether Nicaragua dodges the COVID-19 bullet or not.

Time for a grocery run!

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