Coronavirus: Economic recovery would be faster if NZ linked to other safe countries

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
17 May, 2020

Lifeboats are tricky things. If they are overburdened, they can tip and spill everyone out.

Even with lots of room for other passengers, hauling someone out of the water is precarious and may mean everyone drowns.

When you’re in a lifeboat, you have to be careful.

But is there any image more emblematic of the kind of thing New Zealand isn’t than a guy (and it’s almost always a guy), alone in a lifeboat, rowing furiously away from a sinking ship and ignoring everyone bobbing in the water around him?

It certainly isn’t a very nice picture.

Bigger lifeboats are much easier to row to safety when more people can help. Leaving them to drown, when they could be helping with the rowing, isn’t just nasty, it’s self-defeating – so long as there’s a way of safely pulling others onboard.

New Zealand is an awfully big lifeboat in some rather treacherous waters. Watching the coming tsunami of a terrible recession, this country could use all the help it can get. If a way was found to safely let others on board, shouldn’t it be followed?

It can be done. And it matters.

The first issue is safe entry. If there is no way of safely letting people on board, it matters less how much they could help.

And the first place to look is to neighbours that are as safe as New Zealand – other lifeboats. Boats that raft up together are more stable.

Compared with New Zealand, Taiwan has fewer active Covid-19 cases, a lower average daily case count, tight border controls and a stronger pandemic response system. Auckland has had more recent cases than Taipei. Sitting here in Wellington, an incoming flight from Auckland poses greater personal risk than an inbound flight from Taipei.

New Zealand could, unilaterally, decide to allow visitors from Taiwan – while maintaining the option of closing the border again should its conditions worsen.

But unless Taiwan is sufficiently comfortable with New Zealand’s pandemic response, returning visitors would face quarantine.

Hopefully, negotiations between New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan are underway to let these lifeboats raft up together. If that means some Taiwanese oversight of New Zealand’s tracking, tracing and testing systems, so much the better for New Zealand: it would be like inviting a lifeboat expert onboard to ensure everything’s in order as we raft up together.

It’s hard to argue against rafting up for stability; it’s entry into that set of rafted boats that’s more contentious. But it can be made safe.

Last week, Laurel Chor tweeted her experience of flying to Hong Kong from Paris via Heathrow. Arriving passengers filled in quarantine orders, health declarations, were issued tracking bracelets, and sat, with appropriate spacing, in a wide hall.

They underwent Covid-19 testing and waited for eight hours for the results before heading to two-weeks’ mandatory and monitored quarantine.

Safe entry is certainly possible. It is a hassle, and it would not be cheap. But inbound travellers from riskier places could bear that cost through a biosecurity levy. Mandatory quarantine would put off most casual tourists but others would join New Zealand’s lifeboat for a while to help with the rowing task ahead.

Two weeks ago, I argued for this kind of entry regime for international students. Last week’s Reserve Bank Analytical Note showed international students contribute 1.1 per cent towards New Zealand’s Gross Domestic Product. This takes into account their expenditures in the broader community. Rather than facing the prospect of bailing out the universities, the Government could allow overseas students to safely join this lifeboat and help row the boat faster.

This would not just help the universities, it would help the country. Substantial employment depends on those students’ contributions while staying here. And with a bit of marketing, New Zealand could attract top tier students who would rather not attend online classes at US universities.

The California State University system announced last week it would only have online instruction during this autumn semester. New Zealand can provide a far better university experience by letting them onto its lifeboat. But this requires speedy action to attract students who are already looking at August semester start dates in the US.

Many others could help with the rowing if a quarantine system was in place – from international film productions to international sporting leagues and more. Making the recession less bad helps this country while helping them. And it can be done safely.

It would be silly to be in a lifeboat, trying to outpace a coming tsunami, and leaving others to the waters when they could safely be brought onboard to help. The rowing job ahead is not a small one. 

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