OPINION: We know that the pandemic is turning into an endemic or widespread and common virus. This means living with the virus, but not recklessly “opening up” as some advocate.
We cannot afford to open borders and let the virus tear apart with current vaccination rates and the dangerously limited capacity of the health system.
Both need to be drastically improved if we are to avoid more restrictions nationally than we are used to between lockdowns.
With effective immunization at hand, it’s time to create a gradual and credible plan to massively scale up immunization, invest in our neglected health capacity, and improve public health measures. The new reality of Covid-19 is also an opportunity to rethink the way we manage our economy.
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Restrictions, health and economy
Containment and border closures have so far been an effective strategy.
Our approach has saved several thousand lives, 7,300 compared to Sweden for example.
We would estimate that at $ 33 billion if these people had been killed in traffic accidents. It also avoided an overburdened healthcare system that could have led to increased mortality from other sources (valued at an additional $ 11 billion) and long-term Covid, where those recovering from Covid experience health problems long term and often debilitating (not enough data to put a cost yet).
Comparisons with places like Denmark, Israel, Sweden or Singapore fundamentally overlook the reality of these places. They lived with more restrictions than New Zealand between lockdowns.
Cumulatively, New Zealand has lived with 30 to 40% fewer restrictions since the start of the pandemic.
Open to the domestic market longer, New Zealand’s economy is $ 5 to $ 12 billion larger than those countries. At the top, this equates to the annual GDP of a region like Manawatu-Whanagnui, which is twice the GDP of Southland.
In Denmark, which has now removed all national restrictions, this pandemic is experiencing for the first time level 1 conditions similar to those New Zealand has enjoyed between short and severe shutdowns.
Define the opening
When people say openness, they mean opening the border. Countries that have done so have national restrictions in place. This is because immunization rates are still relatively low and people are still getting sick in sufficient numbers to put pressure on health systems.
Unless immunization is nearly universal and the capacity of the health system is sufficient to care for those who may still get sick and make the unvaccinated very sick, opening borders will come with more national restrictions. .
The demand for open borders is linked to tourism, international education, immigration and reconnecting with the world for trade, investment and knowledge flows.
Public support for tourism and immigration was in decline before the pandemic, and to date exports and investment flows have been very large. There might be more resistance to national restrictions than support for more open borders.
Vaccination and the new normal
It’s clear that Covid-19 and its variants are here to stay, like the flu. There is no going back to 2019, the Covid will make people sick again. This means that we need to take advantage of the New Zealand approach so far to invest in the next steps. It must work on three fronts.
First, we need mass vaccination.
About three-quarters of the eligible population are already or reserved for vaccination. The remaining quarter and children under 12 are not vaccinated.
That’s 1.8 million people. Those who talk about targets should do so for the entire population, which reduces the risk of transmission. The virus does not care if you are of the eligible age.
We must massively step up our efforts to immunize hard-to-reach populations. We may need to explore incentives like lotteries or vaccination warrants for certain activities, to really speed this up.
Next year, Pfizer’s vaccine will likely be available for children as well. Another campaign will be necessary to vaccinate them.
Only then will we have enough immunizations not to overwhelm our limited-capacity health system. In reality, this is unlikely until mid 2022.
Second, some companies should consider mandatory regular testing and vaccination mandates as part of their health and safety program.
There are also practical implications for businesses of wasted hours due to sick staff. We will need to have access to saliva testing and clarification of the rules of vaccination mandates under health and safety legislation.
Third, we need to improve public health.
This means we need a fully funded annual Covid and influenza vaccination program. MRNA technology means we can have targeted annual boosters. We could consider coordinating local production, to have greater security of supply.
We need to have infectious disease protocols in place when triaging patients, to avoid infecting vulnerable patients in clinics and hospitals. And we need to invest heavily in our healthcare system, Covid has proven that we have very little capacity to cope with sudden increases or changes in demand.
We must also overcome our strange blockage of masks. Many Asian countries have become more frequent mask users in crowded and high-risk places after SARS. Simple hygiene precautions in crowded places can greatly reduce the risk.
Economic response and political parameters
Just like the health response, the economic response will also need to change as we move into an endemic with a widely vaccinated population and a health system with sufficient capacity to cope with sudden surges in demand. It can take years rather than weeks or months.
Vaccination remains low outside the rich world, including in the centers of manufacturing and commerce. This will affect access to products and prices may increase.
Just in time, the mantra of decades-long global supply chains will be replaced by resilience. It means relocation. For most New Zealand businesses, that simply means holding more inventory, rather than new manufacturing plants.
Locally, confinements will not be necessary with a vaccinated population. Wide access to aids such as wage subsidies should be phased out. Once immunization becomes nearly universal, it could be replaced with more targeted restrictions and access to loans rather than grants. Instead, the government should focus on ambitious nation-building projects (including our neglected health sector).
Although New Zealand has accumulated significant debt due to the pandemic, it is low compared to other OECD countries. Nor are there the excessive debt pressures of the 1980s, when interest payments swallow up a quarter of our tax revenue, leaving little for other programs.
Today, interest payments represent the smallest share of taxes in history. We don’t have an immediate debt problem and we should move away from this obsession with paying off cheap debt.
The government will also need a realistic plan for tourism and immigration.
It can be said that tourism had lost its luster even before the pandemic. The pandemic has shown that New Zealand’s net benefit may be lower than that of supporters. The introduction of a tourist tax distributed to regions dependent on tourism will add both an obstacle to reducing low-spending tourists and a source of income for infrastructure.
Immigration has dropped, but the country is still functioning. It can be argued that migrants and ethnic minorities work disproportionately in “core” industries.
Record levels of labor demand and intensifying labor shortages will also drive the intensification of the corporate chorus to allow more migrants. But there is no divine right for workers, it is a political decision.
The decision must be informed by a population strategy. Otherwise, limited and temporary access to visas for occupations where there is a serious shortage, a massive increase in education and training, and a skills fund to retrain workers are all needed.
Businesses shouldn’t hold their breath for the same swiftness and urgency of immigration policy as we’ve seen with the pandemic.
On the contrary, they must take control by improving wages and working conditions, use subcontractors and temporary workers for flexible and experienced workers, invest heavily in training, digital and automation.
The pandemic is over. It is now endemic. We need a new long-term approach.
It requires widespread immunization, massive investments in health capacity, companies taking control of their own businesses rather than expecting Beehive to run them, and government policy to focus on strengthening health. nation (infrastructure, education and health for example) and to put in place good policies. on tourism and immigration.