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COVID-19 pandemic marked by lack of meaningful and respectful debate, says incoming Actuarial Society President

21 October 2021 Actuarial Society of South Africa

Dialogue relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by a distinct lack of meaningful and respectful debate largely due to arrogance and a lack of curiosity, according to Tjaart Esterhuyse, the incoming President of the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) and Head of RGA EMEA Explore.

Addressing the more than 1 650 actuaries attending the 2021 Actuarial Society of South Africa Convention this morning, Esterhuyse reminded delegates that actuaries carry a responsibility to maintain the utmost level of professionalism when engaging on matters affecting the public. He also pointed out that actuaries have a moral imperative to always apply sound actuarial principles and methods and to stick to their fields of expertise before making public statements.

“I’m not an epidemiologist, or a modeling expert, so I will not venture to comment on things that I know very little about. But when fellow actuaries and other professionals with such experience that I know and trust provide well-reasoned and substantiated commentary, I will listen to what they say.”

He further cautioned the actuarial profession against falling into the trap of Simpson’s Paradox by not considering datasets from all angles before making assumptions and statements. Simpson’s Paradox happens when aggregated data tell a different story to when data are separated into categories.

According to Esterhuyse, there has been a polarization of ideas around many aspects related to the pandemic. Some 18 months down the line there is sufficient research and data to confirm or disprove some of the early assumptions made, and according to Esterhuyse it is time for some humility, even if this requires admitting mistakes.

Leading by example, Esterhuyse acknowledged that he had initially underestimated the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic. “When figures of 250 000 deaths for the first wave were mentioned, I thought that would be impossible, and I was more inclined to believe the figures of around 8 000 to 10 000 deaths being bandied about. Both were wrong, though reality turned out to be very bad still.”

Esterhuyse told South Africa’s actuarial profession that acting with respect towards others should form part of an actuary’s make-up. “Being able to listen with an open mind to other opinions may lead you to adjust your own thinking. Dismissive and disrespectful behaviour does not foster any hope for being able to discuss matters like mature adults.”

He pointed out that an arrogant approach often results in messages being dismissed, meaning that no value was added. “Two minds are better than one. And diversity of thought is powerful when you allow that to be expressed and listened to.”

According to Esterhuyse, the unprecedented situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic requires actuaries to retain their curiosity and, more than ever, guard against clinging to preconceived ideas. “By being curious we may well be able to see that there may be some validity in someone else’s truth, and that the answer actually may be a mixture of the two.”

Esterhuyse called on South African actuaries to continuously apply the Own Risk and Solvency Assessment (ORSA) approach when engaging with the complex problems presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We do an ORSA in the businesses we are involved in, because it highlights what may happen if our best estimates are out, or if reality turns out differently to the expected, as we have seen the last 18 months. What if. And what to do if life turns out to be ‘what if’.”

He reminded actuaries that part of their job is to convey complex matters in a way that their audiences can relate to it. “And you must be able to substantiate your findings with well-developed reasoning that is backed up with real information. As you may well need to defend your advice in court of law with another actuary questioning your thinking.”

Esterhuyse concluded that, as incoming President of the Actuarial Society of South Africa, his vision for the actuarial profession is meaningful and respectful debate about difficult topics without fear or favour, the ability to listen to diverging views with respect and open mindedness, and that the ASSA Code of Conduct will be upheld as the foundation of the profession.

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