A coronavirus pandemic which lasts five years, another pandemic in a decade, and ever more transmissible variants are among the scenarios life insurers are predicting after COVID-19 claims jumped more than expected in 2021.
The global life insurance industry was hit with reported claims due to COVID-19 of $5.5 billion in the first nine months of 2021 versus $3.5 billion for the whole of 2020, according to insurance broker Howden in a report on Jan 4, while the industry had expected lower payouts due to the rollout of vaccines.
“We definitely paid out more than I had anticipated at the beginning of last year,” said Hannover Re board member Klaus Miller.
The increase in claims was largely down to the emergence of the Delta variant, twice as transmissible, and more likely to cause hospitalization than the original coronavirus strain.
Claims rose most in the United States, India and South Africa due to the more lethal variants and a rise in fatalities or illness among younger and unvaccinated groups.
Dutch insurer Aegon, which does two-thirds of its business in the United States, said its claims in the Americas in the third quarter were $111 million, up from $31 million a year earlier. U.S. insurers MetLife and Prudential Financial also said life insurance claims rose. South Africa’s Old Mutual used up more of its pandemic provisions to pay claims and reinsurer Munich Re raised its 2021 estimate of COVID-19 life and health claims to 600 million euros from 400 million. The long-term nature of life insurance products – often lasting 20 years or more – means premiums are not yet capturing the risk that deaths or long-term illness from COVID-19 will likely remain higher than previously estimated. Competition in the industry is also keeping a lid on premiums.
Actuaries say rising claims will be eating into the capital which insurers set aside to ensure solvency.
In the initial “shock” period of the pandemic in 2020, the insured U.S. population suffered 12% more deaths than average, according to research from life insurance trade association LIMRA shared with Reuters. “For the insurance industry, that’s not huge because we have reserves,” said Marianne Purushotham, LIMRA’s chief actuary.
“We’re always trying to compare the new variant to the initial shock,” she said.
The impact for insurers in 2020 was more muted because deaths were mainly among older people who typically do not take out life insurance.
As the pandemic continues to surprise with the Omicron variant now becoming dominant, insurers, reinsurers and specialist risk modeling firms are looking to the future.