A test of sustainability

Related material matters and sustainable development goals

Material matters:
6. Understand and respond to the impact of COVID-19

Sustainable Development Goals:
3. Good health and well-being


While economic growth and development has benefited from greater levels of globalisation, it amplifies the contagion risk for diseases and economies on an international scale. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting society on many levels: from governments who are making tough crisis management decisions that have serious repercussions on the economy; to severely strained healthcare systems and workers; and families dealing with new ways to keep themselves safe, healthy and productive.

At the time of finalising this report (on 30 June 2020), the World Health Organisation had reported over 10 million confirmed cases and over 500 000 deaths globally.

The impact on the lives and livelihoods of people, around the world, is enormous as it is both a trans-national health crisis and a far-reaching global economic crisis. In South Africa, the government acted decisively to prioritise the health and lives of its citizens, with President Cyril Ramaphosa declaring a National State of Disaster on 15 March 2020 and a national lock-down implemented from 26 March 2020, which impacted all non-essential businesses. From 1 May 2020, South Africa commenced a phased approach to resuming normal economic activity.

Discovery’s understanding of COVID-19 and the actions we are taking to protect our clients, employees, networks and business partners, are based firmly on accurate and evidence-based knowledge of the disease, as well as best-practice containment strategies from the World Health Organisation.

Our core purpose and our values leading our response

In this extraordinary crisis, Discovery’s purpose to make people healthier and enhance and protect their lives remains central and relevant to the lives of our clients and society. Discovery’s people have risen to the multiple challenges posed by COVID-19 and have continued to engage with our stakeholders and innovate in our response.

The pace of delivery has never been higher across the organisation; not only have COVID-19 projects been executed in record-breaking time through round-the-clock efforts, but the organisation simultaneously continues to push ahead on every front. We have an obligation to do what we can, but more than that, given our unique position we have an opportunity to make a difference and truly be a force for social good.

- Hylton Kallner, CEO of Discovery SA

Our response and initiatives

Discovery’s multi-faceted response to the COVID-19 pandemic was approached by applying the ecological model. This ensured comprehensive and coordinated action within stakeholder groupings, while remaining cognisant of the interrelationships between our people, clients and members, related networks, and society.

The Group rallied together to ensure that our products are tailored and more relevant than ever, our operations and infrastructure are well-positioned to manage this complex environment, and service levels remain excellent and all aspects of the business continue to operate optimally.

It’s been a monumental task and truly reflects Discovery at our very best.

- Hylton Kallner, CEO of Discovery SA (email to Discovery SA employees)

  • Awareness and information drive
  • Daily global scanning
  • Company-wide hand sanitation interventions
  • Increased cadence on office cleaning
  • COVID-19 medical scheme and health insurance benefits
  • Spatial separation and work-from-home protocols
  • 1 Discovery Place closed to members of the public
  • Regular engagement with local health authorities and supply partners
  • Standardised protocols and procedures across all locations
  • Work-from-home policies and advisories
  • Critical service contingencies
  • IT disaster recovery procedures and protocols
  • Financial and market risk management
  • Dedicated health professional information hub
  • Regular communications to advisers
  • Regular engagement and collaboration with Discovery health system partners
  • Executive level outbreak response group with Discovery Vitality partners
  • Awareness and information drive
  • Dedicated member information hub
  • Tailored employer support toolkit for our client and partner businesses
  • High-touch patient support
  • COVID-19 medical scheme, health insurance and life insurance benefits
  • Support National Department of Health, National Institute for Communicable Diseases and local health authorities
  • Support community-based interventions including schools
  • Expand awareness, information content and tools beyond Discovery ecosystem

Protect our people and the businesses

Discovery’s guiding philosophy in the pandemic was to prioritise the health and safety of our people. This reflects our understanding that our people are our business; they are the core of our ability to deliver value to our stakeholders and deliver on our commitment to be a powerful force for social good. And in this time of crisis, we believe that our people have met the challenge.

Our actions to protect our people include health and safety protocols through to wellbeing support. It included hiring hundreds of cars to ensure that essential office-based staff could avoid using public transport and delivering thousands of meals across campuses every day, to producing and distributing Discovery-branded masks. It also meant moving as many staff as possible to a work-from-home model, for their safety as well as for those remaining in the offices; the result was the rapid and successful deployment of over 11 000 people to a virtual work-from-home network.

Specific interventions included:

Establishing the Coronavirus Emergency Committee, comprising representatives from Health and Safety, Business Continuity, Discovery People and Group Facilities, to monitor media reports, and assess potential impacts and strategies around risk to employees and the Group, including reviewing essential international business travel

Providing ongoing communication to reinforce COVID-19 protocols

Increasing scheduled sanitation measures

Taking proactive steps to ensure that our most clinically vulnerable employees are identified and shielded through appropriate work-from-home or other measures

Instituting specific protocols to protect essential onsite teams, including regular temperature checks, enhanced hygiene measures and spatial separation

Suspending access into Discovery buildings for non-Discovery employees for the duration of the lockdown.

Access to Healthy Company for employee wellbeing services continues to operate, including a specific, personalised COVID-19 support service for any employees that require testing or who do test positive. Trained paramedics are available in each building nationwide, and a dedicated email is operating for advice, reports and assistance.

We have also established a cross-functional working group, chaired by the Group Compliance Officer, responsible for implementing regulatory requirements published by the Department of Labour. This working group ensures that Discovery is responsive to the evolving health and safety workplace measures, and keeps employees aware of their rights and responsibilities in maintaining a safe work environment for all. It will continue to operate for as long as the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 remains a public health priority.

To support new ways of working, especially with the move to work-from-home for as many employees as possible, a SAP Jam page is providing information, updates and self-help tools. Also, to ensure that Discovery remains more connected as an organisation than ever before, a series of webinars are being delivered to provide live training sessions and a point of connection across the Group, facilitated by our executives, subject-matter experts, and personal trainers. Webinars centre on topics to help Discovery’s people navigate the pandemic with insight, tools, and mental and physical stamina, and are also an opportunity for executives to answer questions submitted by employees.

Guidelines were developed by the Discovery Institute of Training to help managers set up and support their work-from-home team members, with key tips, expected challenges and additional resources. The transition to a work-from-home environment has been effected efficiently, with little disruption in service levels and response times across our operations. There has also been a discernible shift in corporate culture, with greater levels of empathy from all levels of the organisation as we adapt to new realities, including an understanding of the challenges of home-based work environments, where parents are balancing work and childcare, employees are working from bedrooms and dining room tables, and our people also experience the understandable sense of distress and grief in the midst of turbulence, loss and change.

As the pandemic is still unfolding in South Africa and internationally, we continue to review our approach, including a return to office campuses of more employees as the country moves through the risk-adjusted national strategy phases of lockdown.

Given infection trends, the success of the work-from-home model in terms of technology and productivity, and the resulting cost and time savings for employees, we anticipate that a portion of the workforce will be working remotely well into 2021. The Group is developing flexible work principles to guide business to design and implement fit-for-purpose models of collaborating. This will ensure that all flexible working formats preserve culture, brand, connectedness and operating effectiveness.

For detail on the financial impact, critical service contingencies, IT disaster recovery procedures and protocols, and financial and market risk management, see the 2020 Integrated Annual Report

Protect our clients

COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our clients’ lives, and in many cases their livelihoods. We have tailored our products to be more relevant in a COVID-19 world and also rolled out premium relief and support structures for clients, financial advisors and healthcare professionals to enable them to maintain their critical benefits and cover at this time, with approximately R5 billion earmarked specifically to assist these key stakeholders.

From the moment the lockdown was announced, every team across the business looked for opportunities to be more relevant, led by our purpose and values. The results have been wide-ranging, providing much-needed support and additional product value. Also, a raft of concessions were provided to help members and employer groups weather the impact of the economic downturn.

For detail on Discovery’s initiatives to support clients, see the 2020 Integrated Annual Report

The COVID-19 Business Support Service was launched to assist employer groups and their management teams in formulating and executing an effective response to COVID-19 as their employees return to work, given the importance of protecting their employees and ensuring the continuity of their operations.

Discovery also provided a range of podcasts providing information and resources to members, including a podcast with Cassey Chambers, Operations Director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, that helps patients understand the emotions that accompany a diagnosis of COVID-19 and the support needed in recovery.

Vitality provided members and Discovery employees with access to free content and discounted teaching-related services from CambriLearn and MyTopDog, supporting home-bound families and individuals.

Our Discovery values have shone through in every way. Particularly in respect of innovation, drive and urgency, we have expressed our inherent creativity in Discovery to lead the market with innovative stakeholder offerings to protect customers and enhance the value we provide at every level.

- Dr Ryan Noach, CEO of Discovery Health

From inception of the business, we have built a vast and relevant data pool of health information. Leveraging our leading analytical capabilities, we have been providing disease outbreak modelling, claims forecasting and scenario planning to support the schemes administered by Discovery Health to track and understand the impact of COVID-19. This allows for effective management of the pandemic through quicker identification and contacting of infected members, and risk advisory to mitigate severe manifestations.

Discovery Health’s remote monitoring interventions leverage our vast data sets, cutting edge research and seamless operations to identify high risk members and equip them with oximeters. More than 7 500 members benefited from this intervention, with materially lower morbidity (27% lower hospital admissions) and mortality (38% lower case fatality rate) recorded in these cohorts than in similar control groups.

We are also providing epidemiological and public health advisory services to support the broadest response to combat the spread of COVID-19.

For detail on the clinical impact of COVID-19 and its progression in South Africa, see the Discovery Health whitepaper – Counting the cost of COVID-19

Protect our partners

Given disruption to supply chains across many industries, Discovery has been engaging closely with key suppliers and stakeholders to ensure that a sufficient supply of chronic and essential medicine remains available. We also engaged directly with members to appeal for calm and support by avoiding medicine stockpiling, consistent with national public guidance, to ensure that all South Africans continue to have monthly access to their medicine as required.

Through our participation in the CEO Initiative, a partnership between the Government and the CEOs of a number of companies that aims to stimulate the economy and create jobs, we made a national appeal for corporate South Africa to fast-track payment to their small- and medium-sized enterprise suppliers. Given that there are around 550 000 small- and medium-sized enterprises who employ approximately six million people, supporting their cashflows and injecting liquidity into a particularly vulnerable area of the economy is a critical area of support that can be provided by big business to help alleviate the financial impact of COVID-19.

We also worked with several medical schemes to support doctors, who are also small- and medium-sized enterprises that play a critically important role in society and especially during the pandemic. We freed up approximately R3 billion of liquidity through these engagements to prepay doctors. Discovery leveraged its supplier network to support healthcare professionals in the procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment, a critical defence in their fight against COVID-19.

To support the health of healthcare professionals operating on the front-line during the COVID-19 outbreak, we increased the testing benefit for COVID-19 PCR tests on the WHO Global Outbreak Benefit to four PCR tests per year for members who are registered healthcare professionals. Healthcare professionals also have access to isolation hotels, psycho-social support and flu vaccinations.

We are also providing access to key COVID-19 information to keep doctors abreast of developments in the pandemic, including clinical guidelines and links to resources provided by the National Department of Health and National Institute of Communicable Diseases. In partnership with the South African Medical Association, we facilitated a series of webinars and podcasts featuring leading local and international experts to provide doctors with essential information on developments in COVID-19.

With the lockdown impacting the normal course of business for financial advisers, Discovery moved quickly to change some of our processes to enable advisers to service their clients and continue submitting new business on a fully electronic, digitally enabled basis. This enabled full and immediate cover through flexible underwriting, supported by the rollout of mini-labs nationwide to service underwriting requirements. Discovery achieved increased turnaround times through these new processes, with 99% of qualifying cases underwritten in under six hours.

I am proud of the impact we have had, working with government on many areas of the response, and particularly in supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises. Coming out of this, the new heroes are the scientists, doctors and the myriad of healthcare workers and other support staff that work alongside them.

- Adrian Gore, Discovery Group CEO

Protect our country

Discovery provided extensive COVID-19 support reaching beyond our direct stakeholders, including:

A comprehensive COVID-19 Information Hub on the Discovery website, with open access to up-to-date information covering understanding and preventing COVID-19, to national and international situation reports and governmental resources, as well as links to product-specific information and frequently asked questions. It also includes information on managing finances, working from home, keeping physically active and safeguarding mental health.
191 859 unique site visits were logged on the information hub between 3 March 2020 and 30 June 2020

A digital screening tool was added to the Discovery website and Discovery website and interactive voice response system to help South Africans understand their risk at any time by completing a COVID-19 risk assessment. The assessment is a set of questions that determines if someone may be presenting with symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 or that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 infection and need a consultation with a doctor.

Implementing virtual consultations that are protecting Discovery Health members and their doctors, and extending this to all South Africans on a toll-free basis by partnering with Vodacom and sponsoring 100 000 free consultations.

Discovery is working closely with the National Department of Health, National Institute of Communicable Diseases, local health authorities, and other industry and community bodies, to share our knowledge and expertise. Together, as we learn more about the disease, we are better equipped to support fellow South Africans.

In partnership with hospitality industry partners and as approved by the National Department of Health, Discovery’s isolation benefit supports members with an option to self-quarantine in a managed hotel facility. This is particularly suitable for at-risk members, healthcare workers and companies needing to isolate and protect key staff. Discovery also developed protocols for hotel quarantine facilities for COVID-19 positive patients who are asymptomatic, helping prevent further spread of the virus, with services including nursing support, transport and virtual consultations.

Based on our unique understanding of the risk factors driving hospitalisation, we used advanced machine learning techniques to identify the impact of demographic, health and lifestyle-related factors if diagnosed with COVID-19. Discovery is applying these insights to provide a personalised COVID-19 Resilience Index for all South Africans. For South Africans who are not members of Discovery Health Medical Scheme, the Index uses self-reported data allowing an individual to understand their risk if they contract the virus and take the necessary steps to limit exposure. The Index is being updated and refined as we gain more insight into risk factors.

We have rallied support for national government in their efforts to combat the pandemic, with Discovery teams engaged in projects as diverse as actuarial modelling, feeding programmes for the indigent and digital trace-tracking technology.

In collaboration with the National Department of Health, Discovery worked together to build South Africa’s own, unique Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing app – COVID Alert SA. The app is freely available to all South Africans and part of South Africa’s broader contact tracing initiatives. The National Department of Health was supported by Discovery’s digital development team, with all work done by Discovery provided entirely free of charge and with Discovery having no financial interest whatsoever in the app. The National Department of Health and Discovery worked closely with Apple and Google to align to their exposure notification framework, which is intended for use only by public health authorities. The app was successfully launched by the South African President and Minister of Health on 2 September 2020.

Support extends to all countries where we operate. For example, the Australian Health Department contracted Quantium Health to provide data analytics on COVID-19. Quantium Health is a joint venture between Discovery Limited and the Quantium Group Pty Ltd, a data science consultancy that harnesses data to drive improved patient outcomes.

Through Discovery ForGood, our employee volunteering programme, we are running #PayItForward as a creative and innovative way to continue the spirit of volunteerism during lockdown. Discovery is matching all funds donated by employees to the national Solidarity Fund, with R608 318 raised to June 2020 by Discovery and its employees.

We have also utilised our product structures through weekly Active Rewards donations to FoodForward and UNICEF, and are matching our client donations to the Solidarity Fund in the form of Discovery Miles.

The Discovery Board Chair, CEO and Executive and Non-Executive Directors of the Board donated a third of their salaries and fees over three months to efforts to fight the pandemic, with funding allocated to the Solidarity Fund and other COVID-19 related causes.

Three senior staff members were also seconded to the Solidarity Fund to support its vital role in distributing funding.

We are proud to play our part in supporting the remarkable national effort to preserve lives and livelihoods, given what is at stake.

- Adrian Gore, Discovery Group CEO

Our relevance in the ‘new normal’

Discovery stands with its people, clients, partners and broader communities nationally and internationally in these distressing and troubled times. We share concern about the future, especially as many face real and significant challenges. COVID-19 has laid bare fault lines across the world, and we are seeing how poverty and inequality have real and tragic consequences.

Discovery’s core purpose is perhaps more relevant than ever before – to make people healthier and enhance and protect their lives. We have seen the COVID-19 pandemic bring our organisational values to the forefront, especially in how our people have demonstrated intellectual leadership, and drive, tenacity and urgency in their response. And despite the circumstances, there has been innovation and optimism in meeting new challenges.

The business model in this “new normal” is highly relevant.

- Adrian Gore, Discovery Group CEO

While our Discovery Shared-value Insurance model was already disruptive before COVID-19, the trends underpinning it look likely to intensify going forward. Personal health will be a top priority; as will the shift online and the implications for how individuals access healthcare (telemedicine), exercise (online workouts) and the banking system (digital-only); and the coalescence of purpose and profit through business models that address society’s most pressing challenges – health and financial resilience being one.

There have also been positive aspects to the national response in South Africa, with greater levels of cooperation and engagement across all spheres of society, including between business and government. We believe this creates a template for cooperation that will remain urgent and critical in the months and years ahead, given the massive economic and social impact of the pandemic.

Operationalised through our Shared-value Insurance model, we continue to see that a shared-value approach remains a cogent enabler of healthy lives and societies. From research that we have undertaken in South Africa during the pandemic, indications show that a higher Vitality Status, which is indicative of a healthier lifestyle, is correlated with a lower incidence of COVID-19 hospital admission; this is consistent with many other positive correlations we see with Vitality status.

A research article by McKinsey and based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development makes the link between the costs of the pandemic and costs of poor health globally:

“Informed forecasts suggest that the pandemic and its effects will cost the global economy up to 8 percent of real GDP in 2020. Yet each year, poor health costs twice as much—around 15 percent of global real GDP from premature deaths and lost productive potential among the working-age population. As organizations around the world look for tools to speed up economic recovery, rethinking health as an investment, not just a cost, could accelerate growth for decades to come.”

- McKinsey Global Institute; How prioritizing health could help rebuild economies; 8 July 2020.

In addition, the McKinsey research also estimated that “more than 70 percent of the health-improvement potential from known interventions would come from environmental, social, behavioural, and preventative interventions”. It is here particularly where Discovery has shown the success of the Vitality model in incentivising and sustaining healthy behaviours.

Driven by our purpose and enabled by our Shared-value Insurance model, we have demonstrated great adaptability and success in:
  1. Protecting employees while ensuring business continuity
  2. Supporting clients while maintaining financial resilience
  3. Using our assets and expertise to play an industry support and nation-building role.

The world, and certainly healthcare, will not be the same after this pandemic. If we can create affordable and more sustainable systems that provide all South Africans access to basic healthcare, that would be a very positive outcome of this crisis.

- Adrian Gore, Discovery Group CEO

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