From the tyranny of distance to the tyranny of Covid

Dr Eric Crampton
1 September, 2020

Cartography geeks might remember the isochronic maps of the late 19th and early 20th century. Covid’s time-warp is making them relevant again, and possibly for rather longer than we might hope.

Isochronic maps show all of the places that take the same amount of time to reach from some starting point on the map, often London. The 1914 map shaded Europe through to western Russia in red, showing they were relatively close to London – within five days’ journey.

Travelling for five to ten days could get you to the middle of North America, or to the eastern end of the Trans-Siberian Railway. And most of New Zealand was thirty to forty days’ travel from London.


A revised version produced in 2016 demonstrated the progress in transport over the century.

It had similar shadings, but vastly different times. Five days’ travel became less than half a day. Few places took more than a day to reach from London; the month to month-and-a-half to travel to New Zealand became a day to a day-and-a-half.

Today’s isochronic map would look rather different to 2016’s.

Disrupted air travel might add some time here and there as Covid has made for less regular flights globally. But the bigger difference would be the discontinuities: the places where travel times leap from hours to weeks due to isolation or quarantine requirements. Travel between some parts of the world still follows 2016’s map, but others look closer to 1914’s.

The rest of the world is farther away than it has for some time and could remain that way for a long time to come. If everything goes well, a Covid vaccine will be available in the United States by midway next year, and hopefully in New Zealand not too long afterwards. That kind of best case requires systems that can hold for over a year. And there are worse cases.  

New Zealand’s pandemic response has been rather successful in the grand scheme of things. Far fewer people have contracted Covid here than elsewhere. But that response has taken the concerted efforts of officials fighting the daily fires that pop up, with little opportunity for looking out to the longer term – and especially in an election year.

In the best case, that longer term will last for at least the next year.

Last week, University College London’s Vice-Provost for Health David Lomas, a clinical academic, put forward four scenarios showing the ways of exiting from the pandemic. Three of those scenarios are particularly worrying.

In one scenario, a vaccine is developed, but takes the four years more typical for vaccine development rather than just a year.

In another scenario, further waves of the virus build toward herd immunity in places allowing it – but with substantial proportions of the population having to become infected, with consequent death, disruption, and misery.

Or, the virus could become endemic, with immunity relatively short-lived, no vaccine that proves effective, and intermittent flare ups handled through local lockdowns and the health system.

In all of those scenarios, the Government would need to be thinking well beyond October.

In the best possible case, border systems that have strained to handle travel demand over the past months need to be strengthened to deal with the next year. The economic and humanitarian costs of not safely scaling up will rise the longer this lasts.

Recall that the average month in 2019 saw over 250,000 Kiwis returning home from business trips, foreign study, holidays, or visits with friends and family. Current capacity in managed isolation is about 14,000 per month. Having to stay in isolation will itself deter travel. But it is not crazy to think we would need something like five or even ten times as much capacity in managed isolation as we currently have, once we also remember that others may wish to come here as well. And remember as well that increases in effective capacity can mean shorter spells in isolation, if improvements in testing and tracking can allow it. Halving the time a visitor need spend in isolation doubles the effective capacity of the system.

But it is the endemic Covid scenario that is especially worrying. What sort of policy responses should we be thinking about if no vaccine proves effective, and other countries do not follow New Zealand in pursuing elimination? All options seem terrible.

In that scenario, there is no such thing as herd immunity, just recurring Covid seasons, like the common cold, except that each wave kills a lot of people and leaves others with potentially long-term illness. Swedish approaches in that scenario look particularly awful.

But the costs of pushing New Zealand back to the travel world of 1914, while the rest of the world returns to 2016, are also substantial.

A scaled-up safe border is even more important in that world. If what we're looking at isn't a system that has to just see us through the next year, but rather one that has to work for many years, the fixed costs of establishing better systems become worth fronting. It has to be done not just to enable Kiwis to come home and to see their families abroad again, but also to mitigate some of the economic harms of Covid.

There will be lots of sectors where rolling waves of disruption due to Covid abroad are particularly costly. Some of those sectors might be able to relocate to New Zealand, if the costs of being a week or two away from the rest of the world are lower than the costs of disrupted operation. There will be piles of people who have shifted to remote work who could work remotely from here, and pay taxes here, while being paid by their overseas-based employer.

There is disappointingly little evidence so far of planning for any of those potential longer term scenarios.

The relevant Covid time horizon is at least a year, and potentially much longer. We might hope for the best, but should start at least thinking about preparing for the worst.




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