Opinionista Meg Fargher 22 June 2020

What to do when our insurance umbrella turns out to be a frame with no cover?

We took out contingent business interruption insurance for our boutique hotel. That policy includes insurance against ‘contagious or infectious notifiable disease’ and ‘imposed quarantine regulations’. We didn’t expect a battle to ensue, not least around the semantics of the word ‘quarantine’ versus ‘lockdown’.

 

Nay – these are NOT unprecedented times.

To many of us, life seems to have hit up against a massive planetary malfunction from which no amount of due diligence can release us. The time, however out of joint, is not as unprecedented as many would have us believe. The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic may be more recent in historical memory, and more prevalent in current discourse because, like the Covid-19, pandemic, it had a devastating impact on the world, including South Africa.

Queen Elizabeth I regularly ordered London theatres and ale houses closed because of the outbreak of the plague. Closer to home, burial sites at Mapungubwe give some indication of how communities dealt with the outbreak of disease. I could go on about the rats invading Genoese ports, or plagues of locusts in biblical times, but I am not writing about the historical evidence of disease outbreaks and pandemics. The Covid-19 pandemic is not unprecedented, though leaders, managers and ministers bandy the word “unprecedented” about in opening paragraphs of many communications.

Labelling the Covid-19-pandemic unprecedented is a sleight of semantics to redirect attention away from a collective leadership failure to listen, and a failure to have been prepared. For some, more pernicious than others, the word unprecedented deflects the lens from their greed and their tenuous relationship with ethical good practice. 

Just as the painful birth pangs of new epochs are not new, this new epoch-inducing pandemic is not unprecedented. We cannot use the word to exonerate ourselves from our failure to listen deeply to the grumblings of the earth and wisdom of the elders. Rather than unprecedented, the time is grim, challenging, harsh, possibly preternatural. The time has cast a pall of tedium over many of our lives. In addition, this nascent Covid-19 epoch has juxtaposed and highlighted those who are ethical, against those who are abdicating their integrity. The latter do so to avoid their potential unravelling, or the exposure of the hollowness of the tenets, like “thinking ahead” for which they imply they stand.

Aware of the precedence of outbreaks like SARS — which like Covid-19 belongs to the broad family of coronaviruses — Ebola, and other diseases able to wreak devastation, and believing the wisdom in the adage that, “a wise person fixes their roof before it rains”, we, like others, took out contingent business interruption (CBI) insurance for our boutique hotel that employs 30 people. Our insurers sold us the CBI policy and defined the specific extension clause for disease with the following words:

“Damage (as within defined) is deemed to include loss following the interruption of or the interference with the business as a result of:

“[j] contagious or infectious notifiable disease within a 50 kilometre radius of the insured’s premises provided that the municipal, regional, local or government authority responsible for the area has declared a notifiable medical condition or communicable disease to exist within the area and/or has imposed quarantine regulations and/or has acted to restrict access to the area in terms of any local, municipal, regional or national law, by-law or regulation pertaining to public health and safety.”

We did expect an ethical response. We did expect an expeditious response so that with our contingent business interruption insurance claim being honoured, we could pay our 30 staff and our suppliers, ironically including our insurance company. We particularly expected that our insurance would be there to take care of the staff who live in the local area and which survives, almost solely, on tourism. 

When bookings at our hotel were cancelled because of Covid-19, when the government declared a notifiable medical condition and communicable disease to exist within the area and when they imposed quarantine regulations and acted to restrict access to the area in terms of national law because the government cared for the public’s health and safety, when this happened, we approached our insurers to honour the CBI insurance they had sold us.

We didn’t expect any spurious arguments. We didn’t expect the insurer’s requests to ignore privacy laws when they demanded we supply them with names of actual guests who had contracted the disease and therefore cancelled their bookings; we didn’t expect a battle to ensue around the semantics of the words quarantines versus lockdowns. We didn’t expect that “it was never the intention of [the insurance company to honour] the extension to provide cover for a pandemic event, [because that insurance premium would be too expensive.]”

We didn’t expect our insurer to respond with verbiage and the suggestion that “…you await the outcome of your complaint… or sue [the big-name insurance company] in a court of law”. We didn’t expect them to behave like the proverbial bully with their arsenal of specialist lawyers and to suggest an action a small business could not afford.

We did expect an ethical response. We did expect an expeditious response so that with our contingent business interruption insurance claim being honoured, we could pay our 30 staff and our suppliers, ironically including our insurance company. We particularly expected that our insurance would be there to take care of the staff who live in the local area and which survives, almost solely, on tourism. 

Furthermore, 30 staff feed and care for numerous dependents, some of whom are very vulnerable. We did expect our insurers to consider the very fragile fabric of our nation. There is scant employment in the area, so preserving and creating jobs is a national imperative. An imperative the insurers, through not honouring their obligations, are undermining. 

We did expect the insurance umbrella to come up and protect our staff for whom the hotel represents a livelihood. Aye, we expected that at the very least.

Which businesses, I wonder, will reflect something of which their shareholders and board members can be legitimately proud? How many though, when they look in the mirror, should, in fact, see the starving faces of the people who no longer have jobs which they could have saved by simply honouring their promises.

We weren’t surprised by the clichéd opening line of their correspondence to us: “The world, including South Africa, is currently faced with an unprecedented crisis.” We were surprised by the rather callous reference to all the “good” they had done to mitigate the disaster by minimising premium payments.

And we were most surprised and disappointed that our insurers rejected our claim. After all, they were rejecting the very essence of the policy they had sold us. They were rejecting the very words of their public assurance in their regularly flighted advertisements that they would support small business. They were rejecting the very essence of who they were.

When a vaccine quietens the virus, and when we as a society reflect on this predicted and terrible time, how will we think about how those with significant wealth and traction conducted themselves? How many big companies will be able to hold their heads up high, and say, “We did well by the people of South Africa when they needed us most. Yes, it hurt, but together we are better and we put humanity and our humanity first.”?

And when we are in that time of recalibrating the space, will some companies continue to hide behind words and excuses saying something like, “Aye, unprecedented times those. We had no option but to abdicate our responsibility. We didn’t think of a pandemic.”

Which businesses, I wonder, will reflect something of which their shareholders and board members can be legitimately proud? How many though, when they look in the mirror, should, in fact, see the starving faces of the people who no longer have jobs which they could have saved by simply honouring their promises.

When I reflect on this experience, I realise I would certainly have been the wiser for having listened to my mother’s advice, given me throughout my childhood, and attributed to Charles Bowen:

“The rain, it raineth every day on the just and the unjust fella,
But mostly on the just,
Because the unjust has the just’s umbrella.” DM

Meg Fargher is the co-owner of Budmarsh Country Lodge in the Magaliesberg. She is the former executive head of two independent schools. She runs her own consultancy advising various boards on matters pertaining to education and schools.

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