What's Happening?

Travel insurance and COVID-19: a lesson in grief – and resilience



With adversity comes opportunity – and for Hollard Travel, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant transforming into a business unit that is more agile and shock-proof, offering simple travel insurance wording and more personalised cover.

‘’But before the new world we find ourselves in can be embraced, the old, pre-COVID world that is gone forever, has to be mourned,’’ Hollard Travel Head, Uriah Jansen told the 4th Women in Insurance Conference, which took place on 24 and 25 February 2022.

Speaking on the topic “Embracing change and adapting to the future: making the most of new opportunities”, Jansen told the delegates that COVID-19 left everyone “no choice but to change almost every aspect of our lives, from how we work to how we socialise. We now take the coronavirus into account in virtually every decision we make, when two years ago that kind of thing was unthinkable.”

The impact of the coronavirus on the travel industry has been “devastating”. Lockdowns and the virus’s waves have decimated travel, and confidence that travel is possible. This has forced Hollard Travel (like many other businesses) to transform to meet new challenges, which has very much been a grief process for the world that is no more.

Referring to Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who in her book On Death and Dying characterised grief in five stages, Jansen described the process:

  • Stage 1 – denial: apart from a single colleague of Jansen’s who had foreseen a drawn-out lockdown, most had thought COVID-19 would be over quickly and they did not initially anticipate the disruption to come. Denial is a common defence mechanism, which allows us to get our heads around a situation while numbing the intensity of the experience
  • Stage 2 – anger: where denial is a coping mechanism, anger is a masking effect. As people began losing loved ones to the virus and faced threats to their livelihoods, they became angry at their losses, at the government, at feeling helpless
  • Stage 3 – bargaining: once anger subsided and rational thought returned, people felt like they needed to regain control over their situation. This stage of grief deals primarily with people’s feelings of helplessness
  • Stage 4 – depression: while anger and bargaining are more “active” stages of grief, depression may feel “quieter”. Where before people may have been trying to stay a step ahead of their emotions, now they are more able to confront and process them – but they may have felt more insular; heavy, foggy-brained or confused; or unable to cope with even mundane tasks
  • Stage 5 – acceptance: acceptance doesn’t mean being happy once again, or that one is no longer grieving; it merely signifies coming to terms with the way things are. There are still bad days, but perhaps there are more good ones now

“I believe many of us still wish that COVID-19 had never happened and feel that this is something we could have done without. But the fact remains that it has happened, and chances are that we won’t see the end of it within our lifetime. If we haven’t already, we need to mourn the world that was,” said Jansen.

Travel insurance has always been a complex class, protecting against financial loss both before and during a trip, and includes a wide range of benefits: medical, baggage, curtailment, liability, delay and personal accident. And COVID-19 changed the game in several ways, said Jansen:

  • Travel cover is no longer one-size-fits-all, as countries’ entry requirements are different, and insurers’ offerings have diverged to address the so-called “new normal”
  • Because travel is less predictable, insurers’ focus has shifted to what happens before a trip, with more emphasis on cancellation, medical and quarantine cover. Quarantine cover also didn’t feature previously
  • The trend towards online bookings has been reversed, and travel agents are more important than ever – and brokers are coming into the equation more than previously
  • Airlines and accommodation providers are more sympathetic to travellers’ circumstances and have taken a softer stance around cancellations
  • Everyone is more price-sensitive, thanks to escalated costs for elements such as COVID tests and quarantine accommodation

Hollard was the first insurer in South Africa to redesign its travel offering, said Jansen, including paying for cancellations if the customer tests positive before their trip, and covering quarantine (or hospitalisation) if they test positive upon arrival at their destination.

“We’re also constantly reviewing the insurance we offer, so that we can keep pace with the ever-changing environment. It’s amazing how – just like with the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines – we’ve been able to cut down the time it takes to adapt policies, from months or even years to only a few weeks,” she said.

“But one of the most important things is that we have simplified  policy wordings, in order to encourage our customers to read them properly. Because travel cover has changed significantly in response to the pandemic, getting customers to grasp what their cover entails is perhaps more important than ever – and brokers are a great help here, too.”

Much remains uncertain, but the COVID-19 experience has shown how adaptable and resilient Hollard Travel is.

“Adversity makes us stronger, be it personally or professionally. So, we’re ready, able and willing – whatever the future holds. Are you?” Jansen concluded.