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New Zealand’s uncertain future in a world coming apart at the seams

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Travellers wearing face masks exit the arrivals hall at Auckland International Airport in January.

OPINION: Tucked away among the hundreds of mostly boring Covid-19 documents released on Friday was the bleakest thing I’ve ever seen a Government official write.

The paper, from the usually diplomatic and boring folks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat), sets out the problems facing the globe as Covid-19 continues its rampage, and how New Zealand can go back to being a part of that world.

In stark language Mfat lays out the obvious. Before Covid-19 the liberal world order was not exactly doing well. Global institutions like the United Nations were failing, protectionism was rising, and the countries that usually “led” the world had abdicated that role.

Then Covid-19 came along as an “epochal shock” on the scale of the Great Depression for New Zealand and World War II for some countries. The problems that grow from it would not be limited to the virus itself, the analysts write, but would also propel governments to collapse, people to be driven from their homes, and violent terrorism to increase.

Alex Brandon/AP

The MFAT document noted that “global leadership is absent.”

“Security risks will rise as a result of increased instability, greater state weakness and more failed states; greater international refugee flows; reduced capacity in partner countries to address violent extremism, people smuggling and transnational organised crime; and more space for malign actors to operate given distracted governments.”

As you would expect given “global leadership is absent”, the fight against climate change would probably be put on hold. This means the instability will eventually get a lot worse.

In the middle of all this is New Zealand. The countries we usually look up to, such as the United States and United Kingdom, are reopening despite the virus remaining rampant in them.

Other countries that went “hard and early”, like Australia and Israel, also have community outbreaks.

Aotearoa, on the other hand, retains something like normal life. There aren’t many places in the world many of us would rather be right now, which is not how Kiwis usually feel.

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But there’s a growing number who aren’t happy according to a 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton Poll.

Our Government has failed us too – every Government does – but the border bungle appears to have been patched up before a community outbreak occurred, and has now descended into a farcical soap opera between Ashley Bloomfield and David Clark.

But being free of the virus is not an end-state we can happily sit in forever. It will not save us from a crippling recession and it will probably be impossible to stay this way forever.

The politics of beating Covid-19 aren’t as hard as some would make out. Other than business lobby groups and fringe nihilists most people would rather their government focused more on beating the virus than beating the recession.

‘This is true in New Zealand, where the very strict response is polling around the same as the All Blacks, and elsewhere: A recent New York Times poll found that 55 per cent of voters in the battleground states that will decide this year’s election think the US government should focus on limiting the virus even if it hurts the economy. Even those who have lost their job to the coronavirus recession think the health response should be the focus.

This has been politically useful for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, giving her the cover to act very decisively and swiftly on the virus. But it has set up her Government for problems in the long term.

The public, fairly enough, now expects basically zero-tolerance for the virus. A sizeable portion would probably be happy to completely shut the borders, even to Kiwis overseas, while many more are keen to see returning citizens pay for the privilege of quarantine or managed isolation.

Yet over the long term some degree of opening up to the world will be necessary, and at some point another positive case may well make it through. The prime minister has tried softening up New Zealand for this fact, but it hasn’t really worked: Right now cases caught at the border are for some people seen as a failure.

A few more cases getting through will be seen as catastrophic, even if contact tracing is good enough to stop it turning into a proper outbreak. We have lost any appetite for risk, which makes a lot of sense, but also makes a lot of things impossible.

The catch-22 is that our virus-free-ish status could be a huge economic boost, but actually using it could put that status in peril. There will, god willing, be a vaccine for Covid-19 long before we get to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023.

But if there isn’t, how on earth do we capitalise on all the tourist money without opening ourselves up to the virus? Tourism is simply far too big a part of our economy to be replaced by nice write-ups about our Government in the international media. The brand only matters if you can do more with it than sell a mug with Jacinda Ardern’s face on it.

New Zealand would be a great place to host other cultural events, given we can sustain that kind of physical proximity right now, but first you have to be able to get the acts into the country. With the number of Kiwis flooding home right now it’s hard enough for businesses to get exemptions so they can let crucial engineers in.

A proper tourism renaissance seems a long way away. International students are a better bet, but again the lack of quarantining capacity means it is very unlikely we will be able to get them back soon, as student hostels are simply not up to the standards Kiwis now expect for those returning.

Trade volumes aren’t as far down as many were expecting. There is some hope we can use our Covid-free status to charge higher prices. But most people understand they aren’t going to get Covid-19 from milk powder that’s been on a ship for a long time, even if it came straight from Wuhan, so the advantages seem limited.

And we’re not a country that can easily switch to a digital services economy; even with our excellent internet infrastructure we lack the talent pool or institutional memory of places like San Francisco or Tel Aviv.

As the Mfat boffins wrote, things are bad here but will be worse elsewhere. And sometimes what rises from the ashes is better than what came before. The scars of the Great Depression created the conditions for the modern welfare state and decades of prosperity. But it also led to World War II.

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