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New to our species

Planning in the face of the covid-19 pandemic is complex because humans have never had this particular virus before, says Sir Peter Gluckman, president-elect of the International Science Council and chair of the global Covid-19 Scenarios Project. 

If you are looking for certainty, stop reading now.

By Aaron Watson Boardroom Editor Institute of Directors
21 Sep 2021
read time
5 min to read
A girl painting red hearts on a wall

“This pandemic is unheralded in nature,” says Sir Peter Gluckman, former Chief Science Advisor to the New Zealand Government.

“It is quite distinctive from the most often-quoted pandemic, the so-called Spanish Flu and subsequent flu epidemics. That was a mutation of a flu virus, which our species had had a lot of experience of. This is a virus that is new to the human species. We are still in the early stages of it embedding itself with the human vector. So there are a lot of unknowns and uncertainties and there are different scenarios ahead.”

For this reason, directors and governments share a new problem – how to plan for the future while a pandemic rages due to a virus we do not yet fully understand.

As president-elect of the International Science Council (ISC), Gluckman is currently chairing the Covid-19 Scenarios Project, an ISC initiative run with the support of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, which brings together a multidisciplinary group of experts to map out possible pandemic futures. As head of this ISC project, he is at the forefront of trying to foresee how the pandemic will influence future global health, economics and societies.

New Zealand epidemiologist Sir David Skegg, who recently fronted the advice of the New Zealand Strategic Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group, also sits on the Covid-19 Scenarios Project.

With the government now committed to loosening border controls in 2022 – subject to a successful vaccine rollout and clarification of new quarantine requirements – New Zealand directors can begin to envisage a future where business travel, access to skilled staff from overseas, and a return of overseas customers to industries such as tourism is a real possibility.

But there remains a very real problem for strategic planning. We don’t know what the virus is going to do. And the emergence of the Delta variant in New Zealand has shown how quickly our expectations and plans can be upset.

Reality for Kiwis

The most promising scenarios involve sustained efficacy of current vaccines or the development of a polyvalent vaccine that is effective against all variants of covid-19. Both would potentially relegate the virus to something more akin to a seasonal flu, Gluckman says.

“If a polyvalent vaccine appears and is available in the next year or so the thing might effectively be excluded, at least in countries that are prepared to have close to universal vaccination.”

What mitigates against that scenario is the low level of vaccination, globally.

“There are large chunks of the world’s population that have no access to vaccine yet and are not close to having access to vaccine. So the virus will be circulating for a while.”

As the virus continues to travel unchecked in many parts of the world, the likelihood of new variants emerging remains strong. And this scenario challenges a lot of the world’s efforts to open borders.

We have already seen the havoc the Delta variant has caused in Australia, where it has spread widely in a largely unvaccinated population. In New Zealand, it triggered lockdowns that were still in force as Boardroom went to print.

Even with the best will in the world, Gluckman says, we are not going to get to 100% vaccination in New Zealand. So the choice before the Government becomes one of trade-offs.

“At what point does government say we have given you enough opportunities, we have got enough people vaccinated, the number of cases likely to emerge will not overwhelm our health system so we can reopen fully? What are the intermediate steps for that to occur?”

“At a global level, what will the consequences of debt mountains and quantitative easing be? Will special drawing rights be issued by the International Monetary Fund in sufficient quantity to help? There are a lot of unknowns in the macroeconomic space that have flow-on effects to New Zealand.”

Directors can be encouraged by the Government’s intention to loosen border controls, but must remain aware that mutations in the virus could make that challenging.

“A prudent board would have to accept that whatever follows the Delta and Lambda variants could well turn out to be much more virulent or transmissible, that it could break through more of the vaccines.”

Gluckman’s bottom line is simple: “The virus is not going to disappear from the planet. The challenge is that this is a new virus in the human domain. The mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people in the world means it will continue to mutate.

“The solution lies in good vaccines. There are things we are trying to learn about the vaccines, for example, should children be vaccinated? There are vulnerable populations that have a degree of vaccine hesitancy. So people will get covid-19. It will be of various levels of severity. People who choose not to be vaccinated will be at risk."

How can boards plan for the future?

“Directors need to think globally,” Gluckman says, noting that only a global solution will reduce the ongoing risk to societies.

They also need to think more broadly about risk, he says.

“The pandemic is not just about covid-related illness. It has impacts on the rest of the health system. Do not discount the mental health consequences of the pandemic. Lockdown, educational disruption, the digital divide all will have long-term echoes in one way or another. People have families disrupted, have missed out on seeing their families. There will be mental health issues that are long term.”

That means businesses will see a greater number of employees who have stress problems.

“Even simply Zoomitis, if that is a word,” Gluckman says.

“Then there is the economics. Businesses have disappeared. Some businesses will never recover. At a global level, what will the consequences of debt mountains and quantitative easing be? Will special drawing rights be issued by the International Monetary Fund in sufficient quantity to help? There are a lot of unknowns in the macroeconomic space that have flow-on effects to New Zealand.”

Geopolitical and geostrategic risks have also changed during the pandemic, he says.

“What are the geopolitical consequences of the diversion of a lot of attention onto the pandemic? It has shifted the focus away from climate change and other major risks. It has created opportunities for the geostrategic games around vaccines. There is a general concern that democracy in some places has been undermined by the pleasures of autocracy that democratic governments have enjoyed under the pandemic. There are even concerns about that here, given the unusual political constellation we have of an absolute majority government.”

It all adds up to a complex situation driven by a virus new to humanity that we don’t fully understand.

“Directors need to be thinking laterally and making broader assumptions about risk. What will most affect your business? Be prepared to think about what contingency plans you should have.”

But in the meantime, planning for the eventual, and gradual, reopening of the borders is now a realistic prospect.

“I believe it is possible to maintain a high barrier to the virus, but a barrier that people can cross. It has to be done very cautiously because vaccination in itself does not entirely protect you from being a carrier.

“The population needs to know that this will happen at some stage. It is unrealistic to stay locked in isolation indefinitely and the virus will continue to find ways in whatever we do - so vaccination is key to progress.”   

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