Borders eyed to tackle virus’ spread

The Covid-19 global pandemic is now the most significant threat to the lives and livelihoods of New Zealanders since the 1918 influenza epidemic — and its impact will only intensify as our people and our economy come to terms with the measures necessary to limit its spread and save the lives of those we hold most dear.

We must now all understand the pandemic is much more dangerous to our country than the raw numbers of confirmed local cases suggests. It is now significantly bigger than the number of people who health authorities know have contracted the virus, and who have received expert care in a system that is not comprehensively overwhelmed.

New border restrictions announced on Saturday have incontrovertibly altered the way the pandemic will affect all New Zealanders. They might help slow its import and its spread and they ought to reinforce how wary we must be of a virus that kills and for which there is no vaccine.

To recap, the Government now requires arrivals from all but certain Pacific island territories to self-isolate for a fortnight upon arrival. It has also banned cruise ships from visiting New Zealand until at least June 30.

Those meeting the health effects of this outbreak head-on — the doctors, nurses and other health professionals who understand what a full-blown outbreak would mean for our already "tight" health system — say the restrictions, even though they rely on the same honesty system one might employ when selling eggs at one’s gate, may help limit the spread ahead of a more long-term response.

It may take months, perhaps even two years, for a vaccine to be developed. Until then, an obvious commitment to slowing the virus’ spread will work alongside a push to ramp-up testing and diagnosis that doctors hope will be announced soon.

However, the success or otherwise of the self-isolation plan depends entirely on factors outside official control. Its success depends on the willingness, and honesty, of recent arrivals who may have spent plenty of good money to travel around, and experience to the fullest, the most remarkable country in the world.

Resident arrivals, or those visiting family and friends, may have more motivation to keep to themselves as much as possible. But asking tourists who bought their tickets in good faith to limit or curtail their tourism seems a tall order.

The Ministry of Health defines "self-isolation" as "staying away from situations where you could infect other people". That effectively means one should avoid everything where there are likely to be many other people.

What is not open to interpretation is the significant and potentially devastating impact these measures will have on countless people, households and businesses in an economy that heavily relies upon the free movement of people for commerce and trade. Even more than before, the most immediately far-reaching contagion is an economic one.

Saturday’s announcement effectively ended the cruise ship season two months early, and there is no doubt this will mean significant lost income for countless Dunedin businesses.

It is now entirely certain many more visitors will choose not to visit New Zealand, lest they be burdened by isolation when they return home and in a country where, as the shutters come down, there are increasingly fewer things to do. Many, many millions of dollars in direct spending — and many more in knock-on spending — will go begging.

Businesses already grappling with supply chain and revenue issues will face the short-term pain of losing returning staff to isolation, and the long-term planning for how staff leave and wellbeing will be managed. No matter the business, all will need to plan for months in which the business and, crucially, the earning environment has changed.

For them, and for the sake of many livelihoods, their pandemic planning must swiftly move into how finances, credit and potentially ramped-up Government assistance may be secured. Covid-19 is a potential risk no more.


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