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Coronavirus deflecting attention from other big threats, says risk chief

The focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic could blind companies and governments to other systemic threats, a senior risk professional has said.

Peter Giger, group chief risk officer of global insurer Zurich Insurance Group AG told journalists at the launch of the World Economic Forum's COVID-19 Risks Outlook report on May 19 that the risk environment "hasn't dramatically changed" as a result of the pandemic. Rather, he said, the world had "just experienced the realization of a risk that we didn't have on our radar and didn't manage properly."

He added: "The risk is that everybody focuses on mitigation and future prevention of this very risk and starting to ignore all other risks which will be still out there."

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

One risk that could be overlooked in the scramble to tackle the coronavirus pandemic was climate change, according to Giger. He said: "Rest assured, the planet continues heating up. Just because it doesn't make the headlines right now, doesn't mean the risk has gone and the issue has gone."

He added that there was "a whole host of other exposures" that needed to be managed alongside the virus.

Pluses and minuses

Climate change concerns took the top five positions in the 2020 edition of World Economic Forum's annual list of the most likely global risks to hit over the next 10 years, published Jan. 15. The threat of a global pandemic did not feature on the list, which is based on a survey of experts and decision-makers. But Adrian Monck, a managing director of the World Economic Forum, told journalists that the report that accompanied the 2020 survey contained a chapter on pandemics, and this risk has featured in the report for the past 10 years.

Saadia Zahidi, also a managing director at the Forum, said that the coronavirus outbreak had highlighted "that we do need to be paying greater attention to those areas that we know are there but are at the edges of our consciousness, and we need to be investing much more in those."

While noting that the coronavirus crisis could divert attention from other pressing risks, Giger said that some measures taken to stem the virus's spread were reaping benefits. "Despite the negative impacts on economies, the lockdown measures have had positive effects on the environment," he said. "People are seeing clean skies and experiencing quieter roads and are likely to emerge from the pandemic more conscious of air quality and the environment."

Green recovery

Also, a reduction in traveling and consumption, as well as calls from some world leaders for a "green recovery" could also help the environment.

But the pressure to pull global economies out of their nosedive could be detrimental to improving sustainability, Giger warned. Efforts to stimulate fossil fuel markets, weaker commitments to climate action and low oil prices "create new risks of stalling progress."

Furthermore, neglecting efforts to preserve biodiversity and stem agricultural and urban expansion into natural habitats in favor of tackling the coronavirus would "not only be a setback on sustainability agenda but potentially create greater risk of future pandemics" because it would ease the spreading of pathogens, Giger said.

He added: "Global sustainability could be shaped for years to come by the decisions taken today."

The survey of around 350 senior risk professionals in the World Economic Form's May 19 COVID-19 report found that prolonged global recession, high unemployment, another outbreak of an infectious disease and protectionism dominated the list of near-term concerns for companies amid the coronavirus crisis.