Monday, March 13, 2023

When a Virus Stays Viral: Variant Edition

Hello fellow pandemic survivors! How is the bunker life treating you these days?  I know many folks may be maxed out on articles on COVID, but let's not lie - season 4 has had some new interesting twists. 

First, I came down with the 'VID while at an actuarial conference! I was down for a couple days with fever and flu like symptoms, before recovering. Spent some time quarantining to prevent spread and thankfully the rest of the fam was able to dodge the bug. 

Second, little did I know that I would get another chance to experience a catastrophic event a month later. Hurricane Ian plowed over my community in September. You can read about my thoughts on that experience, and how it is a reminder that risk is everywhere, tomorrow is never promised and lessons on resilience and resolve.

Many of the lessons from the hurricane apply to the pandemic as well. How do you alert but not panic the public, how do you save the most lives? How do you respond after the storm hits? How do you dig in for the long haul?

Third, the virus is mutating itself like it is part of the Marvel Universe or something.  The VARIANTS even sounds like a new movie in the franchise. Before we go deeper, here's a quick look back at the past 3 seasons. 

To recap: 

  • Season 1  -the sky is falling
  • Season 2 - putting humpty dumpty back together again
  • Season 3 - same song, new verse, a little bit louder, a little bit worse
In an ongoing effort to chronicle the elements of life in COVIDland, we will revisit various themes:

1. Decision Making and Uncertainty
2. Risk Models
3. The New World

Decision Making and Uncertainty

One of the attributes of SARS-COV-2 is its ability to generate surprises. As of this writing, the BA5 variant origin is still a little bit of a scientific mystery. And to an extent even the initial origin story is not fully clear.

As an aside, you know things have gone sideways when the naming convention feels more like a droid from Star Wars than an actual name.

When you have this kind of obscurity or uncertainty, it leaves a void for various conspiracies. And as a subplot of the pandemic, concurrent with other societal issues, compelling narratives are often able to gain more traction than reality. This becomes a difficult thing to combat because it is hard for a government to control information without looking like Big Brother.  It fuels the conspiracists further.

And you have to acknowledge that the WHO looks a little suspicious when it runs a pandemic simulation (Event 201) featuring billionaire Bill Gates (who is very invested in vaccinations) just prior to the outbreak.  It's definitely bad optics, even if disaster planning simulations are worthwhile exercises.

And somehow, if you haven't caught on to this trend yet, the Simpson's are continuing to earn prophetic accolades.  Episode 22 from season 6 in 2010 featured a cadre of media execs planning to plant a virus in the general population that spread through cats (rhymes with bats?). 

The purpose of highlighting these eerie events is that they illustrate the powers of confirmation bias (only accepting evidence that reinforce your current beliefs) and the availability heuristic (basing decisions on information you can easily recall). 

Sometimes the truth is 'we don't know.' When this is the case, it is important to hold multiple possibilities to unanswered questions. Some may be more likely than others (exact probabilities should not be assigned), but having an understanding for what is plausible as well as what is possible  will provide a sufficient set of answers.

Andy Slavitt is an expert in public health policy and in a piece from the Atlantic, one of the things he is hoping for is that the virus become MORE PREDICTABLE. 

"Better yet, if the virus’s fluctuations came only annually and predictably, we could attack it with once-a-year boosters designed to match that year’s variant—something that’s essentially impossible today, when a booster developed in March is out of date by October. Planning and predictability would be nice for everyone, but especially so for people at high risk." (emphasis added).

At the end of the day, there is still a lot we don't know. (Including Long COVID). So let's keep those thinking caps on and stay curious!



The World Economic Forum publishes a report on emerging risks. And setting the conspiracy theorists aside for the moment, understanding and preparing for major risks is important to ensure that you can avoid exposure to some events, and have contingency plans for others.  The report is a bit of a gut punch, it is quite hard to stay optimistic after reading it. Among the topics discussed is the concept of a polycrisis: "where disparate crises interact such that the overall impact far exceeds the sum of each part."

What is important for risk modelers is a continued appreciation that many things do not happen in isolation. The world is quite interconnected. 
Mortality Experience and Mortality Improvement

A second element of modeling that is worth focusing on is how in the heck insurers will deal with COVID mortality data. Usually mortality rates are fairly stable, maybe showing favorable trends as technology and access to health care improve over time. Trying to decide if COVID mortality is an abnormality, and if so how to exclude it from experience, is just the beginning of challenges for actuaries. What about the future - has the pandemic and its affect on our mental health created a long term drag on mortality and morbidity? Does the continued strain on hospitals factor into higher mortality rates?  Or has a lot of the sickest populations been culled such that we have a stronger and more resilient population as a result?

Again, it may be wise to continue to hold a position of 'I don't know.'

The New World


Travel and entertainment industries seem to be making a comeback.  Even cruise lines are starting to recover, as they lift various testing and vaccination requirements.

On the entertainment side, all the stresses to pandemic life are generating some good jams. I tend to tilt more rock, digging the latest from Shinedown (Planet Zero), and Project 86. But throughout the pandemic we have seen artists like Elton John and Roger Waters release 'lockdown sessions.' And while some voices are critical, others are more hopeful, including Bryan Adams and the always quirky Bjork whose song 'atopos' reminds us the hope is a muscle that allows us to CONNECT.

Comedians are working all sorts of pandemic material into their sets, the Netflix special Inside by Bo Burnham is a wonderfully creative project. 

Movie theaters may be in a tougher spot, with so many folks perhaps preferring streaming at home. However, the movie industry at large may be ok as the appetite for content is not showing any signs of abating. .

And it should be said that the pandemic also deserves some credit for the meteoric rise of TikTok and content creation out of the living room.

Remote Work and Real Estate

The remote worker universe is still a struggle for many corporations. On one hand, dropping the home office requirements has enabled firms to expand their talents searches to new geographies. However, bringing people back to the office is not easy.  And as a Forbes article points out, there are many ways to do it wrong. 

With recent rises in interest rates, relocation activity and the real estate market generally may be cooling off. The flight to the burbs has triggered several communities to make accommodations for their recent population booms. However, the pendulum may swing back as city real estate prices fall and people feel safer to return to the metropolis.

The mental health of the population still seems to be very strained. Continual stacking of labor shortages, inflationary costs, global conflict, corporate austerity, makes feeling safe and secure a real challenge. Keeping tabs on burnout will be extremely important.

Looking ahead: 

  1. I am anticipating even more evolution in the "Future of Work" and Education models. 
  2. Real estate swing back to cities
  3. Continued growth in the travel and leisure space as people look to unwind, barring any new variants of concern.
  4. More M&A activity
  5.  Advances in ways to cope with COVID.

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