Coronavirus: Could it be the start of a global disaster?

The various looming crises, from financial to climatic to seismic and viral, all call for...
The various looming crises, from financial to climatic to seismic and viral, all call for preparation, the doomsayers insist. IMAGE: MAT PATCHETT, GETTY IMAGES, REUTERS

In 2020, doomsday scenarios are legion. Bruce Munro talks to ‘‘preppers’’ of various stripes about getting ready for the end of the world as we know it.

He is a respectable professional who lives in the South Island. But he is stockpiling silver and gold against what he says is an inevitable, global, economic meltdown.

She is a successful New Zealand businesswoman who also heads up Survival Movement New Zealand. She is calling on the Government to stockpile enough food and fuel to buffer the country against risks ranging from droughts and war to meteors and solar flares.

He is an ordinary dad looking to shift permanently from Australia to New Zealand with his daughter. He has done the calculations. He has looked at the safest options. He wants to be living in Mosgiel when the world goes pear-shaped sometime after 2028.

Take your pick.

No, seriously, how would you most like, or most fear, the world as we know it to end?

Whatever your doomsday flavour - economic, political, natural, environmental, military, technological, social, climatic, extraterrestrial - there is someone who will tell you it is inevitable, imminent, inescapable ... and that you should be preparing for it.

Not that they are necessarily all barking mad. On Sunday it was announced the Doomsday Clock - set up in 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to signal the proximity of nuclear, climate and other global catastrophe - had moved 20 seconds forward. It now sits at 100 seconds to midnight. The closest ever.

No wonder. The warning signs of a dozen different Armageddons lurking on the horizon are difficult to ignore.

Prof Robert Webster. Photo: supplied
Prof Robert Webster. Photo: supplied
World-renowned virologist and ex-pat New Zealander Prof Robert Webster says another deadly pandemic is not a matter of ‘‘if’’ but ‘‘when’’. Could the mystery, SARs-like virus emanating from a live animal and market in Wuhan, China, be the start of that global disaster? A score of people are confirmed dead and hundreds of others are reportedly infected. But the London-based Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis estimates nearer to 2000 will have been infected by the start of this past week. There have been several reported cases of the illness, which now spreads human-to-human, outside China. This, as many of China’s 1.4 billion people are about to travel abroad on Lunar New Year holidays.

Or how about the shaky global financial system? Around the world, private debt continues to balloon. New Zealand is right up there. Household debt levels, at 93% of GDP, are among the highest in the world. Bubbles are also appearing in housing markets, bond markets and stock markets worldwide.

‘‘I see bubbles everywhere,’’warns Yale Prof Robert Shiller, who has a Nobel Prize in economics. Prof Shiller predicted both the 2000 stock market crash and the 2007 United States housing market crash.

Last time, the banks were considered ‘‘too big to be allowed to fail’’. But there are many who say the underlying problems that led to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) were plastered over by printing money rather than reigning in debt. As far back as 2010, the International Monetary Fund said a tax on financial activities was needed to pay for the next GFC. But its warnings have not been heeded. Could the next international pecuniary calamity, perhaps just around the corner, mean our whole monetary system keels over, taking with it governments, businesses, law and order?

Then, there is, of course, the gathering climate crisis.

The world is warming. The world’s oceans, which absorb 90% of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases, are warming at a rate equivalent to five nuclear bombs of heat every second, day and night, 365 days a year.

Extreme weather events are increasing. Globally, since 1980, floods and various water events have quadrupled, while other climate events such as extreme temperatures, droughts and forest fires have more than doubled, the European Academies' Science Advisory Council says.

Close to home, Australian bush fires, piggy-backing off the worst drought in decades and record-breaking air temperatures, have scorched 18.6 million hectares and could keep burning for months.

It fits predictions of life in a climate-changed future. Scientists warn that beyond a global temperature rise of 2degC the impacts of climate breakdown will likely become catastrophic and irreversible.

Add to the horrendous list the increasing risk of nuclear warfare, an expected major earthquake on the Alpine Fault, the possibility of super volcanoes, the potential for synthetic viruses to be unleashed as bioweapons ... and it is hard to avoid the feeling the end is nigh. Or, at least, the end of life as we have known it.

PayPal founder Peter Thiel has a bolt-hole in Wanaka. Photo: Getty Images
PayPal founder Peter Thiel has a bolt-hole in Wanaka. Photo: Getty Images

SO, how best to prepare?

What are those who see ‘‘the end’’ fast-approaching in their rear vision mirrors doing to ready themselves?

What can be learnt from them?

If you do not live in a temperate, antipodean paradise at the bottom of the world, then the doomsday preppers’ clear message is - move there. Or at least buy yourself a bolt hole there and have a private jet capable of flying non-stop from the US to New Zealand fuelled and waiting for the apocalypse to kick off.

Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal, has bought a multi-million dollar chunk of land on the edge of Lake Wanaka. Thiel has cited The Sovereign Individual, a roadmap to power and riches in a post-democratic future, as the book he is most influenced by. He has also called New Zealand ‘‘a utopia’’.

He is not the only one.

Speaking of New Zealand as a “favoured refuge in the event of a cataclysm”, billionaire LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman told the New Yorker that “saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more”.

It has been reported that five Silicon Valley executives co-own an ‘‘escape’’ jet, a Gulfstream G550, capable of reaching New Zealand without refuelling.

There are also unsubstantiated claims that up to 35 underground survival bunkers have been shipped to New Zealand by super-rich Americans scared by whatever end-game scenario they see on the horizon.

Prof Nick Wilson, University of Otago. Photo: supplied
Prof Nick Wilson, University of Otago. Photo: supplied

They might be on to something, according to Prof Nick Wilson.

The Wellington-based University of Otago academic says the risk of human extinction has never been higher. His particular focus is near-extinction events such as a northern hemisphere nuclear war (1.4% annual risk) or a global pandemic caused by a synthetic virus escaping a laboratory.

In such scenarios, Prof Wilson says the resources, development and relative isolation of New Zealand and Australia make them the world’s top two candidates for ‘‘island refuges’’ - hideaways where a remnant of humanity could hole-up until the dust settled and then begin rebuilding.

He has called on the Government of New Zealand to do three things; collaborate with Australia in planning for a near-extinction event, invest in resiliency and rehearse rapidly sealing the nation’s borders.

Also urging the Government to act is Lisa Er, founder of Lisa’s Hummus, which she sold in 2006, and head of Survival Movement New Zealand. In the face of risks ranging from drought to war, Er wants the Government to set up a disaster ‘‘think tank’’ and to stockpile and maintain a three month supply of food and fuel for the whole country.

Sarah Stuart-Black, who is executive director for the National Emergency Management Agency, says they are all over it, sort of.

The country has ‘‘extensive and agile arrangements’’ in place across agencies that would allow it to deal with a range of events, ‘‘both foreseen and unforeseen’’.

This includes working with other countries ‘‘to respond to emerging threats’’.

In regards to building resilience nationwide, a National Disaster Resilience Strategy was launched last year.

New Zealand has ‘‘reasonable stocks’’ of medical, food and other supplies. But individuals and families should make sure they have their own supplies, the nation’s emergency planner says. There is no mention of fuel.

Asked whether any members of Cabinet had a secret bunker or a panic room, Stuart-Black says ‘‘Meeting facilities for Ministers are available within the Parliamentary precinct in Wellington. I would note that arrangements are also in place to move Parliament to Auckland on a temporary basis should Wellington become severely impacted by an earthquake’’.

It is best to ask Customs NZ about border closure rehearsals, she advises.

Customs NZ responds that bits of the border, including sea and air ports, are closed during regular national security exercises. But the country has never tried shutting down the entire border at one time - an action that would require Cabinet-level sanction - and so no-one knows how quickly it can be done.

Bottom line, despite uncertainties New Zealand is a better place than most to ride out a global meltdown.

But once here, where to live and how to prepare?

Hoard silver. And gold. That is the advice of a Dunedin man in the education sector who does not want to be identified.

‘‘I don’t want to appear like a nutter,’’ he says.

He is not anticipating the collapse of society. The world will keep turning. But he insists there is a financial adjustment coming that will be big enough to cause our paper money-based monetary system to ‘‘keel over’’.

Ever since 1971, when US president Richard Nixon decoupled the US dollar from gold, governments have been free to print money without measure. The increase in money supply has been ‘‘parabolic’’. Private debt is sky-rocketing, along with house and stock prices.

All those bills have to be repaid. But when the financial house of cards starts to fall, individuals and banks will be caught a long way short, he says.

‘‘I can already see cracks appearing.’’

Silver and gold, however, hold their value. In fact, their worth climbs every time the financial markets get spooked and soars when it crashes.

So, he has bought gold, silver coins, and silver bars. He owns five, 1kg bars of silver, worth $50,000 each.

When it does go awry, he is going to use his hoard to invest in property and companies.

Someone told him ‘‘you’re going to be king of the rats when it all falls down’’.

‘‘Better to be a king than a rat,’’ he replied.

Deep adaption prepper Greg Cromack and his daughter Saron. Photo: supplied
Deep adaption prepper Greg Cromack and his daughter Saron. Photo: supplied

A different apocalyptic vision floats in the mind of Greg Cromack. An Australian-born New Zealand data programmer, Cromack is alarmed by projections of life in a climate crisis world.

A widower, he describes himself as ‘‘a scared parent who worries about the future of his daughter’’.

‘‘I’m a deep adaptation prepper,’’ Cromack explains.

‘‘We’re doing too little, too late to respond to climate change. We’re going to have a hard time of it.’’

Cromack has decided Australia will be hit too hard. He plans to move permanently to New Zealand. But not to the North Island - that will be too chaotic. Nor to Canterbury - too dry. Nor the West Coast - too many storms.

Ticking all his climate change survivor boxes, however, is Otago. Specifically, Mosgiel.

From his research, a population of 3000 to 5000 individuals is ideal ‘‘when things go pear-shaped’’. It will be a big enough community to be sustainably self-sufficient in food, energy and other basics such as healthcare.

‘‘We’re going to have to respond to this on a community level.’’

Cromack does not believe we will have to wait long to see he is sadly correct.

‘‘People will be able to keep on lying to themselves that life is going great - I give us eight years ... That will be the point when everyone realises, that’s it.’’

Cromack is friendly and voluble, especially compared with self-confessed hardcore doomsday preppers; the type that foresee a world gone not just ugly but nasty. They keep their heads low.

One, a ‘‘Rambo-type’’ individual who lives on the West Coast, tells a Dunedin-based intermediary he does not want to talk to a journalist. Another, who lives north of Wellington, does not want to detail his preparations but is happy to provide tips on how to prepare.

Put earthquakes, heatwaves, financial collapses or bioweapons to one side, however, and it becomes clear that the differences between how people believe the world as we know it will end are less important than actually preparing for it.

A message arrives from the Wellington doomsday prepper who is writing his top 10 tips.

‘‘I’m sticking to the basics of prepping,’’ he writes.

‘‘I’m avoiding [listing] underground bunkers filled with enough gear to supply a small regional war.’’

‘‘Focus on how you'd suggest preparing for whichever armageddon you consider most likely,’’ he is requested.

‘‘If you prep for one, you prep for the other,’’ he replies.




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