"The world ahead will be obsessed with the preservation of human life"
In an interview with l’Express magazine, Denis Kessler, Chairman & CEO of SCOR, reflects on the long-term consequences of Covid-19 and on society’s growing aversion to risk.
Interview by Béatrice Mathieu, published on July 30, 2020
The pandemic and the way it has been managed have revealed a steady increase in risk aversion within our modern societies. There is a pressing concern with preserving human life and eradicating suffering, at all costs. How can politics respond to this? And above all, at what cost? Will it stifle innovation? For Denis Kessler, Chairman & CEO of the reinsurer SCOR, this need to preserve human integrity will weigh heavily on the budgets of both States and households.
The Covid-19 pandemic. “Its effects are emerging like a photo from a darkroom developing tray, with the black and white details of this new world coming slowly into focus. This historic health crisis has accelerated trends that were already at work, but are becoming increasingly clear.”
The rejection of danger. “We can argue that risk aversion overall is rising in every country, mainly because the most serious risks - relating to mortality and morbidity - seem more pronounced. Every individual throughout the world could potentially be affected by the virus, which makes this threat virtually unique. Although natural catastrophes can be very serious, they are always local, never global. This is why the impact of the pandemic is so powerful: it triggers both individual and collective fears, rendered all the more stressful because the danger is invisible.
The current crisis will leave indelible marks on our collective unconscious. We will fear risks more deeply, and their occurrence will be increasingly traumatic. As calls for protection and prevention grow, it will be necessary to lower the probability of such traumatic events, especially catastrophic ones. And when they do occur, their impact will need to be limited, for the overall population and for each individual comprising it.
Increased risk aversion means that risk management – particularly by governments - will have to change significantly. It is now perfectly clear to everyone that it is the State which has ultimate responsibility for public health. The failures of numerous governments in their pandemic response should lead to an overhaul of their risk management policies. Countries should be better prepared for major risks that might affect their populations, they should prepare the most appropriate crisis-containment responses and implement them without delay, they should better coordinate the actions of civil society and the public authorities and, finally, improve communication to the general population.”
The economic value of life. “Undeniably, the value of human life is rising at a rapid rate, while suffering is increasingly rejected. This is true of both the “objective”, “economic” value, and the “subjective” value of life (i.e., the value we acknowledge and attribute to it). Globalization over the past thirty years has resulted in a very significant rise in the economic value, measured as the discounted total income over a lifetime. The combination of higher incomes, increased education, lower discount rates and longer life expectancies have meant that this economic value has risen much more sharply than GDP. Higher risk aversion leads to a greater propensity to protect human assets, both qualitatively and quantitatively. This explains the considerable rise in spending on health, and the underlying increase worldwide in demand for health care, including in emerging countries. Spending aimed at directly or indirectly preserving the value of life accounts for an increasingly large share in the budgets of both governments and households.”
The preservation of human integrity. “The rejection of all forms of suffering – not just physical, but also psychological and moral – is also on the rise. The opioid crisis in the United States illustrates society’s growing refusal to suffer. The use of painkillers and antidepressants of all kinds is constantly on the rise. This growing rejection of affliction shows that the resources devoted to treating it are going to increase dramatically, both on the private and public levels.”
A social cost. “According to the new value vector that is appearing, and has gained ground during the pandemic, everything must be done to ensure the global “integrity” of each individual against decline, deterioration and change. This movement was already underway. The range of suffering has been expanding for decades – initially viewed as strictly physical, today it is infinitely broader. The law has enshrined this expanded concept, as reflected by legislation covering psychological harassment, particularly in the workplace. Abuses once tolerated are now subject to civil and criminal penalties, and give rise to compensation. But there is not always a “guilty party”.
Preserving life at all costs and eliminating suffering at all costs: these are the trends that will mark the post-Covid world. This “reweighting” of both collective and individual utility functions will require new choices that will impact our social organizations, change individual behavior and shape a world dominated by the search for maximal protection of human assets. Do we really want to pursue the slightly delusional dream of trying to eliminate risks relating to mortality and suffering? Is that realistic?