New Zealand is not the world’s post-Covid future

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
26 July, 2021

About a year ago, North American friends started looking to New Zealand as an early glimpse of their own potential post-Covid world.

They were still stuck in lockdowns; we had emerged from ours. They wanted to know what their future might look like. Would working from home prove ‘sticky’? Or would everyone go back to their offices?

The answers mattered for thinking about whether firms might relocate to places where rents were lower, with obvious consequences for real estate prices.

The geographic time-vortex has since changed direction.

New Zealand is not the world’s post-Covid future. Covid now seems globally endemic, with no prospect of the rest of the world eliminating it – as much as we desperately hope they would.

North America instead provides visions of what a post-vaccination world may look like. If our luck holds, New Zealand will join the post-vaccination world without ever having to endure any real Covid outbreak like Australia’s. If our luck does not hold, New Zealand will get there the harder way.

Canada’s vaccination rates are now among the best in the world. As of last week, 52 per cent of Canada’s population was fully vaccinated and a further 18 per cent had had their first shot.

Those who are not vaccinated still impose risk. Vaccines sharply reduce the likelihood of serious illness with Covid, but some risk remains. Canadians support measures helping them to stay safe, and to avoid passing the virus on to others who are vulnerable, by staying clear of those who are unvaccinated.

Majorities of Canadians surveyed in late May, when only 54 per cent of Canadians had had at least a first vaccination dose, and again in July, supported proof-of-vaccination requirements to board commercial airline flights; to travel internationally; to attend public events or large gatherings; to visit public places like restaurants, movie theatres and churches; and, to attend one’s own place of work.

Quebec will be requiring proof of vaccination for entry into high-risk places like gyms, concerts, and festivals in any fourth wave. And, last week, the University of British Columbia’s alumni association urged the university to require vaccination for students in the residence halls – a measure supported by 82 per cent of students.

Across the US border, vaccination rates have plateaued at about 56 per cent and the costs of low vaccination rates are more obvious.

America’s National Football League last week set a new policy. If a vaccinated player returns a positive test, without symptoms, he can return to play after two negative tests a day apart; unvaccinated players must quarantine for 10 days.

If a game is cancelled due to a Covid outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with unvaccinated players does not just forfeit the game. It also bears responsibility for any resulting financial losses.

The league’s policy does not mandate vaccination. It simply ensures that the costs of not being vaccinated fall where they should.

Some American universities are requiring that their students be vaccinated. Indiana University’s mandate survived a court challenge last week.

Looking ahead to New Zealand’s post-vaccination future, we might expect similar preferences here if New Zealand has taken the hard road and endured the kind of real outbreak that makes the risk of the unvaccinated more tangible.

Some businesses and employers might cater to the more risk-averse who, like me, would strongly prefer shopping, eating, commuting and working in places where there are no unvaccinated people around. Other venues could cater to the less risk-averse, like restaurants that were once allowed to cater to smokers.

Canada’s vaccine passport enabling reliable checking of vaccination status might only be ready by December. Might ours be ready in time for our post-vaccination future?

On the other side, some measures that make sense in a pre-vaccination world prove “sticky” afterwards.

Last week, economist Josh Gans’ excellent newsletter on Covid and economics highlighted University of Toronto rules restricting people against sharing offices, and mandating mask wearing indoors, even for vaccinated faculty alone in their offices.

Borders can also prove sticky.

Canada aimed to reopen the border when Canadian vaccination rates hit 75 per cent. The re-opening of the Canadian land border to vaccinated and tested travellers from the United States is scheduled for August 9, but America’s land border is remaining closed to Canadians – despite Canada’s much higher vaccination rates.

If New Zealand luckily avoids outbreaks before we reach the post-vaccination world, our border may prove stickier than it needs to be.

The Government has signalled that border policy will change in the post-vaccination world. But, quietly around the edges, we hear signals that nobody should really be able to expect to travel for another year.

New Zealand needs to be able to join the rest of the post-vaccination world in 2022. If the Government believes that world still to be too risky, then improving border quarantine now, so it will be able to accommodate a lot more vaccinated travellers for much shorter stays, will be important.


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