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quarterly issue 2

Should coronavirus have caught us by surprise?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 21 Jul 2020

ICAEW CEO Michael Izza takes stock of the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and sees a key opportunity for the profession.

I am not the kind of person who shouts at the radio or television but I have done so in the past few months. Why? Because I am fed up with commentators insisting this coronavirus caught us by surprise. We have been discussing the threat of just such an event for years.

As ICAEW’s newly appointed CEO back in 2007, I attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos for the first time. The WEF had issued its annual Global Risk Report, compiled by some of the world’s biggest insurers, and way up among the top risks in terms of catastrophic impact on the global economy and mortality rates were pandemics. 

The report set out a scenario to illustrate the impact of a newly emerging pandemic – caused by a coronavirus – on business, the financial system and political and economic conditions over an 18-month period. It did not make for pretty reading. Interestingly, the report also concluded that one of the key lessons arising from the risk scenarios was the “absolute centrality of co-operation between the US and China in dealing with a number of major risks – from mitigating climate change to managing pandemics”.

“Without the full engagement of both the US and China,” it continued, “global risks will be extremely difficult to manage successfully.” How prescient.

We discussed the money needed for research and development to get ahead of the game and develop base vaccines that could be altered according to the characteristics of the coronavirus. Governments were keen to understand how to ensure resilience in their healthcare systems and what measures they could take, because in an increasingly global world these things travel very fast.

The 2019 Global Risk Report devotes five pages to pandemics. It warns, “Progress against pandemics is also being undermined by vaccine hesitancy and drug resistance. As existing health risks resurge and new ones emerge, humanity’s past successes in overcoming health challenges are no guarantee of future results.” 

Clearly the arrival of COVID-19 was not a surprise. So where is the accountability for the catastrophe that is unfolding now? And from the business continuity perspective, how many of us had a pandemic on our risk registers? 

There will be time to apportion blame. For now, we chartered accountants have a role to fulfil in helping to put the global economy back on track. We have a chance to make sure that the choices we make lead to a better future, rather than back to the way we were. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals offer a vision of that future and a framework in which to achieve it.

I believe this is the profession’s moment. Solving problems is what we are about. We need to ask what it means to us on a personal level, and for the organisations we advise or work in, and how we can work together to ensure that the world is better equipped to deal with another pandemic, should it happen again.