Five Covid Lessons and Adaptations
13 January 2021
The infamous saying attributed to Albert Einstein is: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As the world tries to deal with new and more contagious Covid variants, it is important to reflect on the lessons learnt from Covid in 2020 and develop adaptations for the coming year, so that we may survive the coming Covid rounds. But what we did in 2020 needs to be adapted for 2021.
Lesson number one: the only way to prevent Covid spreading around the world is to completely lock off the borders and allow no people or goods movement. This is clearly impractical and could only be achieved with the most drastic of results. Completely locking off our borders is also not tenable for New Zealand, due to our very high reliance on international trade to sell our primary produce. We also need the borders to be sufficiently open to allow the movement of skilled seasonal workers to allow our country to function.
This leads to adaptation number one: because we cannot close our borders, we need to manage them to enable trade, labour movements and New Zealand citizens to travel in and out of New Zealand. This is what our Government is doing, but in doing so, it runs the risk that the border will not be secure, because the only way it can be secure is to close it completely.
In 2021, the development of alternative, more cost effective and time efficient ways to control the border needs to be developed. This could include creating bubbles with countries that are Covid-free and creating different quarantine and access regimes based on the risk each traveller presents, based on, for example, the countries they have come from and whether they have been vaccinated. Also, having quarantine facilities provided and managed by industry and the community for lower risk travellers has real potential to make our borders more flexible, while maintaining the required security.
Number two: we need to prepare for more Covid incursions and community transmission of Covid. It is not an inevitable outcome, but it is a likely outcome. We need to learn from what happened during the Auckland lockdown last year plus from what other countries are doing.
The economic effect of locking down our major city was significant. The disruption to businesses and people purchasing food and getting on with their lives was extreme. The challenge to overcome is how can we isolate community cases without needing to lock down enormous areas and lots of people. How can we enable businesses and people to go about their lives with the least possible disruption? Can we lock down smaller areas and use the Covid app for example to control and trace contacts? Locking down Auckland was an evolution from locking down the entire country. Is it now time to evolve how we could effectively lock down smaller areas and numbers of people?
Number three: during the lockdowns, healthy food did not get to a large number of people. We need to focus on ensuring the New Zealand population is in the best possible health it can be. Personal hygiene and facemasks are an important part of this, as is having healthy food available for all New Zealanders.
During the lockdowns, we experienced a significant portion of New Zealanders who did not have ready access to healthy food. The adaptation here that has been thankfully adopted by the Government is to permit independent fruit and vegetable retailers to open, under controls similar to dairies and service stations, at Alert Level 3 lockdown.
The next step is that while the country is not in lockdown (apart from border control), we need to educate and enable people’s personal hygiene, teach them how to use face masks and the Covid tracing app, and stress the importance of healthy food and how to prepare that food. If cost is a barrier for people to access healthy food, we need to develop new ways for people to access food for their health and help them understand the importance of healthy food and how to prepare it.
Number four: redirecting New Zealand workers into new and different careers. In 2020, the answers were the wage subsidies and essential industries like ours employing more New Zealanders. This was a quick reaction and one that met some of the immediate needs. If we are not going to see the pre-Covid worker movements around the world, we need to re-design how we operate our businesses. This is no easy task and requires innovation, time to think and experiment. Businesses are enduring the current Covid operating conditions with a focus on survival. Time to think “outside the square” of daily business is not abundant. But for our survival, we need to change our pre-Covid thinking and adapt our ways.
Number five: following on from number four, we had to re-tool our businesses to maintain and increase productivity, and to provide levels of protection for everyone involved in the business. This was done at speed and was made to work in 2020. Our future workforce (lesson number four) is in exactly the same position. We need to ask if Covid, or something like Covid, is here to stay for more than the immediate future. If the answer is yes as it would seem to be, then labour and business operations need to be adapted to become completely different from pre-Covid and what we did in 2020.
As noted above, this will require time to work out what and how we run our businesses differently, and access skills and supply of labour, while ensuring that everyone is safe and businesses can effectively operate, generating a profit. Why is a profit needed? To finance the change in operations and cost and time involved in innovation, as well the move to even more automation and enhanced processes.
There are two consequences from the five adaptations: how do we do the thinking that is required, and how do we pay for it? This is not something that the myriad of businesses in New Zealand can do in isolation and, for the small businesses that are the backbone of New Zealand, it is not something they have the time or the money to finance.
So, going back to the saying attributed to Einstein. We are going to have to change what we are doing to effectively survive Covid and future diseases. This will require new and innovative thinking. The challenge for 2021 is how do we do this as a country? How do we enable innovation and adapt our research and existing resources?