Clare Hughes recaps the thought-provoking Plenary session ‘The needle and the damage done – life post-pandemic’.

Jennifer Lang, Convenor of the Actuaries Institute’s COVID-19 Working, Group opened by asking “can we really bounce back better?” to an international panel, who shared examples of how actuarial expertise has helped guide policy decisions and create opportunities for social change.

Tan Suee Chieh, President of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, informed us of the international COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group, formed early in the pandemic by actuaries and medical professionals connecting on social media to educate the public and interested parties.

The group issued Bulletins throughout 2020 (continuing in 2021) to help actuaries and medical specialists model and forecast the pandemic’s impact on health services. Bulletins were issued quickly, responding as issues arose, making it a good source of reliable information for international media outlets. This fast response to the crisis enabled senior actuaries and medical professionals to use their judgment and provide an expert opinion without the need for time-consuming review needed for professional research.

Tan is a member of Actuaries for Transformational Change, initially established to influence policy in economic thinking, climate change, and sustainability, but has expanded the intent to include COVID-19 as an opportunity for the profession to use their skills in an uncertain and complex world. 

Tan reminded actuaries of their strengths, including accuracy, conscientiousness, consistency, reticence, and courage to diversify their thinking and actuarial practice.

From the Australian National University College of Health and Medicine, Professor Gruen shared with us how policy must be balanced to manage potential health and societal implications of the pandemic, including international border closures. With Australia’s borders closed since the onset of COVID-19, Australia has remained relatively untouched, with many of us living normal lives with few restrictions.  However, this outcome occurred following a debate around how to balance the health benefits of closed international borders against civil liberties and economic impact.

Gruen l also explained Australia and New Zealand’s elimination strategies, compared to the mitigation strategy adopted in other parts of the world, was the right approach for Australia, and there is clear evidence that the elimination strategy is superior, with fewer deaths per million, a smaller decline in loss of GDP (in 2020) and a greater increase in GDP gain (in 2021). This evidence, combined with Oxford University’s measure of civil liberties, clearly shows that an elimination strategy results in better outcomes for society than a mitigation strategy.

Gruen said there was evidence to indicate that the COVID-19 virus would spread outside a normal distribution.

Traditional risk management and cost-benefit techniques were clearly inadequate even in the early stages of the virus when precautionary principles were required to reduce risk. While virus management and reducing damage from the pandemic is the current policy initiative, he said that social renewal is ahead of us and important consideration of policymakers.

Thayendran Naidoo, ConvergeHEALTH Leader at Deloitte South Africa, shared how his team helped manage the COVID-19 crisis in Africa. Using data from diverse and numerous sources, his digital dashboard provided real-time visualisation to African policymakers – including South Africa’s Ministry of Health and medical suppliers and medicine distributors. Data helped forecast manufacture, distribution, and payment requirements for PPE, medicines required to manage COVID-19 symptoms, and hospital planning, including emergency locations needed to contain a localised COVID-19 outbreak.

Thayendran said that the pandemic had enabled diverse thinking and strong leadership and that remote working fast-tracked how teams worked collaboratively to improve outcomes.

Jennifer closed the session with a series of questions for the panelists, firstly enquiring if any of the lessons learned during the pandemic were relevant for the long-term management of climate change. Professor Gruen said both crises were extinction events – one slower acting but both important for policymakers to understand risk trade-offs and the importance of educating the public of policy decisions.

An audience question asked what social change is needed to address remaining threats from COVID. Theyendran said the social change in first-world countries is slow to happen, unlike in Africa, where policy decisions can have a significant social benefit in a short time frame. Professor Gruen added that Australians, and our Government, still had many policy decisions ahead of them, including how will we live in a world with the virus, and queried what level of change will society be ready to adapt to reduce the impacts of the virus. His final comment was that “pandemics have been a portal between one life and the next”, meaning that historically, pandemics have created great social change and that the future will need to evolve with new ways of thinking and living.

Read further Actuaries Digital coverage of the 2021 All-Actuaries Virtual Summit.

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