Sunday Times

How the insurance industry can help us stem Covid’s deadly tides


As we commemorat­e the passage of 365 days since President Cyril Ramaphosa instituted the first nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronaviru­s, SA stares down the barrel of a possible Easter holiday lockdown. This comes as concerns mount about the possibilit­y of our being struck by a third wave of infections should people fail to adhere to Covid protocols during gatherings with friends, family and religious community members over the break.

To make matters worse, the country now also faces the possibilit­y — even the likelihood — of restrictio­ns on movement and gatherings persisting well into 2022 or 2023 following the cabinet’s announceme­nt this week that the planned vaccine rollout to 67% of the population, aimed at achieving herd immunity in SA, has missed its targets, and phase three is now due to be completed only in February 2022.

Successive attempts by the government to secure an adequate vaccine supply have been stalled by a combinatio­n of bad management, vaccine hoarding in richer countries and inadequate informatio­n about the efficacy of certain vaccines against the 501Y.V2 variant that was first sequenced in the Eastern Cape.

Analytical refrains about our needing to become accustomed to the “new normal” have become tiresome now, especially given that, beyond the hope of meeting vaccinatio­n targets, we don’t seem to have a medium- to long-term plan for managing another 12 to 24 months of pandemic disruption to the health, work, education and social life of our country.

As rich nations negotiate with the pharmaceut­ical giants for hundreds of millions of vaccine doses while making promises to their citizens about a return to the old normal, we need a strategy to steer SA though the difficult two years that lie ahead. That strategy cannot be the repeated extension of the state of disaster every month for the next 24 months. Section 27 of the Disaster Management Act stipulates a very short extension period precisely because a state of disaster is a temporary, emergency measure, not a blueprint for governance.

What social norms do we need to inculcate in SA to brace ourselves for further, successive waves of the virus? How can we better reinforce common-sense practices such as regular hand washing, masking, social distancing and the use of sanitiser spray? And, perhaps most important, how can we incentivis­e longer-term behaviour changes which will protect the vulnerable while enabling the country to return to some semblance of socioecono­mic activity?

In a fascinatin­g 2019 policy brief, University of Cape Town behavioura­l economist professor Martine Visser outlines how she and her colleagues partnered with the Water Research Commission and the City of Cape Town to incentivis­e reductions in household water usage during SA’s worst drought in decades, between 2016 and 2018. By using behavioura­l insights and anonymised household data analysis to implement policies that would incentivis­e behaviour change in over 400,000 households, the city reduced overall consumptio­n levels and staved off “Day Zero” by more than three weeks, helping to prevent Cape Town becoming the first major city in the world to have to turn off its taps.

In SA’s private sector, behavioura­l economics and big data analysis are most often deployed in the insurance industry — which is one of the most advanced in the world. In the last Global Competitiv­eness Report released by the World Economic Forum in 2019, the industry scored 100 out of 100 for levels of developmen­t, alongside the country’s equity and credit markets. A hive of world-class actuaries, behavioura­l economists and data scientists have contribute­d to the sector’s ranking among the best in the world. The skills, expertise and data-analysing capabiliti­es of this industry should be harnessed by the government to help design policy instrument­s which will incentivis­e changes in behaviour that could assist in staving off further, severe waves of infection.

In the current context in which the state of disaster is extended on a monthly basis, and leadership takes the form of a centralise­d, command-and-control structure driven by the National Coronaviru­s Command Council, the government’s priority is enforcemen­t using the criminal justice system. We saw the consequenc­es of this in the early part of the lockdown, when SAPS and SANDF members adopted a ruthless, militarist­ic approach to ensuring compliance with the regulation­s. This has so far resulted in 11 lives lost, almost 350,000 arrests and countless instances of police-related brutality.

Such an approach not only runs contrary to SA’s commitment to building a human-rights-centred civil police service; it is also unsustaina­ble, and has further fractured the difficult relationsh­ip between the police and the communitie­s they are dutybound to protect and serve.

By incentivis­ing changes in social choices and rewarding behaviour that promotes good health and considerat­ion for others in the context of the pandemic, we can and must move SA from the present punitive framework of regulatory enforcemen­t to one dependent on co-operation and self-regulation, and help stem the horrific tides of infection and death.

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