Top risks 2020: potential threats to your organisation

Top risks 2020

Andrew Devereux
Associate Analyst

Dr Adrian Hyzler Chief Medical Officer at Healix International

Dr Adrian Hyzler
Chief Medical Officer

Risks report 2020

Healix proudly presents ‘Risk Oracle 2020’

View our Risk Map 2020

As we embark upon a new year, our experts highlight the top 8 political, security, operational and medical risks that your organisation should be prepared for in 2020.


1. The march towards protectionism

Some major powers have taken steps towards protectionism in 2019, moving away from more globalised and frictionless trade markets. This was seen most prominently in the escalation of the trade war between China and the US. Negotiations between the powers at the start of the year raised hopes of a settlement, but talks stalled and the US responded by increasing the tariff rate on Chinese imports to 25%. Retaliatory tariffs have been issued by Beijing. US tariffs have decreased demand for Chinese goods, impacting an already slowing economy, while alternative suppliers such as Mexico and Vietnam have seized the opportunity to increase exports to the US.

Decreased trade markets is one of numerous factors that could see the US or China falling into recession, significantly impacting global GDP. This has already been impacted by wider uncertainty regarding free trade agreements, such as US President Donald Trump’s replacement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and uncertainties regarding the future relationship between the UK and the European Union. Protectionism, tariffs and trade disputes are becoming increasingly politicised debates, and we expect this to continue into the year ahead, making this a key risk to watch in 2020.

2. Identity politics and turbulent transitions

Identity politics continues to grow as an influencing factor in many political spheres, with individuals increasingly demonstrating a tendency to favour political parties and movements associated with a particular religion, race or other self-identifying factor. In India, President Narendra Modi focused upon issues of national security and identity politics during the presidential campaign, courting the majority Hindu vote and marginalising the Muslim minority. In Indonesia, losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto attempted to put religious matters front and centre of the election campaign in order to pressure incumbent President Joko Widodo; Subianto was attempting to win the votes of conservative Muslims. Despite losing, Subianto was able to force Widodo to move away from his initially moderate stance and adopt a more Islamic agenda, such as appointing a conservative Islamic cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate.

Identity politics are expected to be a significant factor in elections in 2020. US president Donald Trump has used identity politics to appeal to his base, largely based on immigration and trade, and generally attempts to frame debates through the prism of white identity politics. Identity politics framed around the divisive Brexit debate has already been a feature during the UK winter election campaign and the campaign will likely be punctuated by further acts of tribalism born out of Brexit.


3. Transnationalism of the far-right

Throughout 2019, the spectre of the far-right has continued to grow. The risk of far-right extremism has been steadily growing across the Western world, with high-impact attacks in Christchurch and El Paso demonstrating the increased intention of extremists to pursue aggressive actions. Statistics released by the Anti-Defamation League outlined that in the last decade, there have been three times as many murders by far-right extremists in the US than by jihadists.

One of the most concerning trends is the internationalisation of the far-right threat. Extensive far-right communities have developed using online forums and messaging sites, largely masquerading under the guise of ‘free speech’ forums. These interactions are facilitating radicalisation and recruitment – likeminded individuals reinforcing each other’s views and beliefs. Attackers have converged round the belief that a ‘great replacement’ is occurring, with ‘white culture’ being subverted by immigration. In messages or manifestos posted before attacks, the perpetrators of both the Christchurch and El Paso shootings referenced previous attacks and the desire to encourage further far-right activity. Social media has made it easier to fuel a cycle of violence worldwide, with radicalised individuals inspired by the actions and words of others. With the online space notoriously difficult to police, further attacks by far-right extremists in the Western world inspired by the growing global movement are a likely risk in 2020.

4. A Gulf in strategies

Tensions between the Gulf States have continued to dominate diplomatic and military considerations in 2019. Iran has continued to make adversarial manoeuvres, increasing tensions with Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel, which accuse Iran of attempting to destabilise the region. The US blamed a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Iran, with both parties accusing the other for shooting down strategic drones. Tensions peaked on 14th September with drone strikes which targeted the Abqaiq and Khurais oilfields in Saudi Arabia. The US and Saudi Arabia were quick to blame Iran, and the attack was claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. This claim of responsibility has been widely disputed, owing to the location of the attack and suspected direction of missile delivery. The US and Saudi Arabia have claimed southern Iraq or Iran were more likely staging grounds for the launch of the drones. Despite initial brinkmanship and bellicose rhetoric, US President Donald Trump did not launch any sort of military retaliation, instead choosing to roll out further symbolic sanctions against Iran.

The prospect of reconciliatory talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia have improved in recent months, with officials making gradual indications each party would be amenable to initial talks; direct military conflict is not courted by any actor involved. These potential talks have likely been prompted by the lack of a US military retaliation, and Saudi Arabia has decided to pursue its own terms of de-escalation, undermining the US goal of isolating Iran. Although direct conflict has been avoided, notwithstanding the ongoing proxy war in Yemen, further developments are highly likely in 2020, and the situation remains fluid and unstable.


5. Recession worries

An old proverb states that “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold”, and nowhere is this more true than in the global markets. The US economy has experienced a slowdown in 2019, with investment falling by 1% and a downturn in manufacturing activity. Economic indicators are causing analysts to speculate over the potential for the US economy to enter a recession, primarily due to an inversion of the yield curve in the bond market and a slowdown in GDP growth to 2.0% in Q3 from 3.1% in Q2. Despite this, unemployment remains low, alleviating some worries of an imminent recession.

Globally, advanced and developed countries have demonstrated weak growth and a UN report has warned the global slowdown raises risks of a recession in 2020. Red flags such as trade wars, Brexit, protectionism and fluctuations in interest rates have contributed to the global slowdown. Global growth has fallen to 2.3% from 3%, with a dip in trade due to increased tariffs and trade uncertainty. While the US economy might be ailing, the economies of Germany and UK are also showing signs of ill health and China’s levels of debt have risen to a level of 303% of GDP. With several global economies posting worrying indicators, the potential risk for a global recession in 2020 is high, especially if market volatility prompts further uncertainty.

6. Shortages of supplies

Although the reasons for shortages of goods can be myriad, 2019 has demonstrated the impact supply shortages can have on national stability. This has been especially apparent in the Latin America region. Political and economic crises have impacted Venezuela’s export revenues, with the country reliant on oil for 98% of its export income. Oil production has been impacted by rolling power cuts and the country is reliant on support from Moscow, while US sanctions have squeezed the country further. Hyperinflation has contributed to shortages of food, medicine and medical supplies, severely impacting operations countrywide. The administration of Nicolás Maduro has begun to ease controls in an attempt to stem the crisis; increasingly US dollars are being accepted, easing some pressure on the Bolivar, while state controls have been relaxed in order to encourage a revival in output. The Venezuelan crisis has also had a significant impact on Cuba, one of its regional allies.

Cuba was once reliant on heavily discounted oil from Venezuela for fuel, but this supply chain has all but run dry. A tightening of US sanctions has also had an impact on imports of food, forcing the island nation to find more expensive and inefficient import options. Public transport networks have been severely reduced owing to the fuel shortages, while some food products have been limited to a fixed amount per purchase. It is not just external shocks which have caused shortages of basic goods. In Haiti, long-standing domestic issues have led to fuel shortages, prompted primarily by low supplies, a lack of federal cash reserves and significant fuel debt. The shortages have triggered violent anti-government protests, with activists blocking roads with burning objects and rioting. Hospitals are reliant on generators, while unemployment is rising. Shortages of basic goods are unlikely to be a worldwide risk in 2020, but Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti are examples of how significantly domestic operational risks can increase exponentially due to internal and external shocks.


7. Measles

Measles is a vaccine-preventable disease and yet remains a global killer that is here to stay – at least for the next few years – despite the fact that the vaccine is safe, highly effective and inexpensive.

Due to vaccination neglect by many countries and the spread of the ‘anti-vaxx’, or anti-vaccination message, fuelled by social media, childhood immunisation programmes are being eroded away, making measles one of the top medical risks for 2020.

Given how far the vaccination rates have fallen around the world, this is not a situation that can be turned around in a short space of time. Immunisation programmes must be promoted, even in countries with excellent vaccination penetration overall. It is the scattered groups of unvaccinated people that threaten the ‘herd immunity’, the general level of immunity in the country that serves to protect the majority. Vaccinated people form something like a firewall around those who are medically frail (like the elderly) and those that can’t yet get the vaccine (often babies and pregnant women), making it difficult for measles to penetrate. Authorities should consider introducing new regulations to make vaccination mandatory for attendance at schools and nurseries.

Social media platforms must be encouraged to remove unsubstantiated anti-vaccination propaganda. The biggest pandemic risk we face is through misinformation in the digital world. Widespread education programmes should be introduced by national health education bodies to tackle any mistrust of government and pharmaceutical claims and reinforce the vaccination message.

It will be years before the many countries that were previously deemed free of measles are able to satisfy the World Health Organisation that they have again reached eradication status. But only by taking these steps will that be possible.

8. Dengue fever

Dengue fever causes the greatest disease burden of any virus transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks or other insects, with an estimated 100 million infections per year, according to the World Health Organisation. There are an estimated 10,000 deaths from dengue every year.

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine using predictive modelling of climate change and global population growth has estimated that more than two billion additional people could be at risk from dengue in 2080 compared with 2015 under a warming scenario roughly representative of the world’s current emissions trajectory. This is mainly dependent on population growth in areas that are already at high risk for dengue, as well as expansion of dengue affected areas. The study also predicts an increased risk of dengue in the south-eastern United States, coastal areas of China and Japan, and inland regions of Australia. New areas at risk over the next 60 years are likely to include higher altitudes in central Mexico and northern Argentina while areas with decreasing risk include areas in Central East Africa and India.

While the first vaccine for dengue has recently been licensed, its use is limited. It is hoped that among other vaccines still in trial, we will discover a solution that will be more universal in distribution and will have a greater impact on the disease demographics. Though there is no specific treatment, it is crucial that governments maintain robust programmes for mosquito control, clinical management of disease and outbreak response to help limit the global impact of dengue.

Risks report 2020

This article is extracted from ‘Risk Oracle 2020’ – our essential guide for employers with a global workforce, sharing key insights into the risk landscape in each region around the world.

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