A new normal, again

Welcome back to life at Covid-19 Alert Level 1. We have been here before and we are in no hurry to go back to where we were.

From today, we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the shop counter or as close as we want as we queue for our takeaways or to pay for our petrol.

We can sing and cheer in number at churches and sports matches, and we can convene arena-sized election meetings should we desire.

We can interact as we did before the deadly Auckland Covid-19 outbreak forced us into Alert Level 2. The virus contained, we can go back to "normal", if we want to.

The extent to which each of us can truly say we are back to "normal" depends on how how we have been affected by months of uncertainty.

We have experienced a protracted lockdown and an even longer period of proscriptions as to how we interact with each other when we leave our homes.

We have learned the distance a virus can travel from a sneeze or a heavy breath, and we have learned how long it lingers on surfaces touched by a stranger.

We have learned not everyone washes their hands as we do, and not everyone is wary of spreading "their" germs when they are out in public.

In short, we have learned the people we have around us are more than just strangers, friends or family. They are also potential vectors of Covid-19.

All this makes it hard to expect everyone to leave months of caution — for some, fear — and seamlessly return to some sort of pre-Covid-19 normal.

Our public interactions, our interpersonal expectations and our new social and economic situations are quite different to what they were in February.

Since then, we have been made more wary of each other and, as the virus remains and the economy wanes, we are less confident about the near future.

There are tens of thousands more people on job seeker benefits than there were before the local and global pandemic response began.

Thousands of businesses have closed or are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and many will not commit new spending over the coming months.

The most recent Treasury forecast suggests the country weathered the pandemic better than expected, but that does nothing to lessen the impact swinging in and out of the alert levels is having on our communities and our businesses.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday said there was no such thing as a costless response. She was right; the cost will mount even in Alert Level 1.

Leaving Alert Level 2 is tremendous news for public-facing businesses but analysts do not expect the "lolly scramble" that happened last time.

Consumers, wary about their financial future and even of each other, are not expected to spend-up as large as they might otherwise in the lead-up to Christmas.

This is not good news for many hospitality and some retail businesses that have to make up for lost time to pay bills that did not drop markedly over Alert Level 2.

Rents accumulated and over drafts grew as social distancing rules kept bars and cafes less than full, and foot traffic less than optimal.

Many commercial landlords supported their tenants and most banks extended credit, but they too should expect a return on their investment when "normal" trade resumes.

Event organisers have been treading water. They will still be taking a punt on the South staying at Alert Level 1 between now and Christmas.

They and others will continue without targeted support and without recourse to the government wage subsidy, to which applications have now closed.

They will rely upon the virus not leaving Auckland or managed isolation, upon people using the government tracing app and maintaining some of the caution built up over the past six months.

Caution will be the catchcry of the next few months. It may make facing the pandemic easier, as it makes facing the immediate future more difficult.


 

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