The Future Is Now: Implications of COVID-19 for New Zealand – Executive summary

by Sir Peter Gluckman, Dr Anne Bardsley

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Executive Summary

Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures was established to focus on long-term thinking about the complex issues facing New Zealand’s future. These issues generally involve a collision of knowledge, disciplines and expertise, intersecting with contested values. The conversations that are needed require broad trans-sectoral and transdisciplinary engagement, and trusted partnerships.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought such issues even more rapidly to the fore. The intent of this paper is to help catalyse important conversations that are needed in the wake of New Zealand’s response to the crisis. It is clear that we will not go back to a pre-COVID-19 normality, but instead will inhabit a new normal. Issues that might have taken years to consider, may now have to be considered over a much shorter time frame. New Zealand must take the opportunity from this pervasive and hugely disruptive crisis to shape its future in an informed and inclusive way.

Where will the virus take us?

The future of the pandemic remains uncertain, but to date New Zealand has had a very effective response in terms of keeping well below a damage threshold. With an opportunity to still eliminate the virus, at this moment a degree of optimism seems reasonable. But we must also be prepared for ongoing outbreaks, and be conscious that this optimistic positioning comes at the cost of an enormous amount of social and economic disruption.

There are health, social, economic and logistic considerations that have to be taken into account in loosening restrictions. This is not just a simple modelling or econometric equation – and different stakeholders already hold very different views of how things should be balanced in that analysis. A range of expertise is needed to feed into the plans for safely moving from the restrictions of the level 4 lockdown, back towards a fully functioning, though indelibly changed, society.

Discussions have clearly identified the need for high vigilance for new outbreaks, and this means adequate rapid tracing capacity. However, it is suggested that on the current trajectory, provided tight border restrictions are in place, New Zealand could move from the current level of constraint to a modified level 2 within a few weeks. This would allow many aspects of the internal economy to return to some form of normality.

Planning the reset: The future is now

Whatever the strategy is to lift the current restrictions, the global disruption caused by the pandemic is of a scale and pervasiveness that it would be naive to imagine a return to the world of 2019. Social, environmental, business and geostrategic impacts will echo for a long time and force both global and local change. We must seize this opportunity to have urgent reflection on many issues, not just to recover from the horrific disruption but to find the opportunities for a better future. Many of the issues this paper highlights are ones that we would have had to confront in coming decades anyhow, but the crisis accelerates the need for discussion; the future is indeed now.

Essential questions for informed conversations

This paper introduces a number of key questions that need to be addressed, each of which will require further detailed analysis. For example, what geostrategic consequences can we expect globally, and how will New Zealand respond? How will different sectors of our economy and society move forward from the unprecedented disruption caused by the extended lockdown and closure of our borders? How will the economy deal with an inevitable downturn in consumer spending, and supply chain disruptions? Can small businesses recover and again lead the recovery? Will entrepreneurial firms be able to take advantage of our low barriers to entry into a new market landscape? What will our export sector look like into the future? Does this accelerate change in the primary sector? How will the tourism sector have to evolve? How will employment patterns and modes of working evolve, and what skills will be needed? How do we return New Zealand to a healthy balance sheet? Can we use our success with the pandemic to leverage foreign direct investment and new business opportunities?

What lessons are there for the organisation of public services and social safety nets? What opportunities emerge for our science and innovation sectors? Will this event trigger change in education delivery mechanisms? Will it undermine or create new opportunities for higher education? What will mobility look like, internationally and locally, especially when many sectors rely on short-term and permanent migrants for labour and skills supply? And can we sustain our progress towards a more inclusive and cohesive society?

If we succeed at achieving maximum viral suppression, will our relatively unique COVID-19-free status be an advantage for sectors such as export education? And could it be used as a magnet for investment and for attracting organisations and companies to locate significant activity here?

The current opportunity for a reset offers a chance to think about how we move to deal with the other existential threats, climate change and environmental degradation. Each sector will have its unique challenges, but they operate interconnectedly and need to be considered in light of the New Zealand economy as a whole. The report briefly explores each of those sectors.

Being prepared

There is a need for urgent but reflective and multi-sectoral discussion on these issues. At the same time we must not hurry ahead without making sure we learn the lessons from the pandemic, both from national and international experience. We need to consider how the public and private sectors can work optimally together and build better trans-sector resilience-focused relationships for more effective planning and coordination for addressing future shocks.

There is also a need to reflect on whether the most appropriate tools for risk identification and management are in place. It particularly raises questions about our national risk register, and general deficiencies in foresighting and horizon scanning.

Trust and transparency, recovery and resilience

New Zealand has shown itself to be quite cohesive in the face of the current adversity. In this environment trust is critical – yet inevitably fragile. While New Zealanders have trusted government decisions and have generally complied well with the lockdown, there is a pressing need to address both the economic and social impacts of ongoing restrictions, which are anticipated even if elimination seems realistic at the end of the lockdown period.

Many issues will test our resilience, cohesion and societal well-being. To maintain cohesion, there must be trust and transparency in the decision-making institutions. The Epidemic Response Committee of Parliament is seen as a particularly important innovation. But the concern remains that some evidence and data that are needed have either not been collected or released. Trust may be threatened if transparency is inadequate and if unnecessary constraint is prolonged. In turn this could affect societal resilience.

New Zealand has the opportunity to approach these issues by establishing trusted partnerships and truly engaging society, the private sector, NGOs, academia, and government in critical conversations to work towards robust and informed decisions for the benefit of New Zealand’s future. We need to reflect on what kinds of processes can best assist rapid progress on such existentially important matters.

Koi Tū sees its primary contribution as being a forum for synthesising evidence, raising questions and convening discussion towards solutions. It is inevitable that many of the issues to be considered will confront contested interests, values and worldviews that must also be considered. It is clearly for the government and policy communities, the business and NGO sectors, to work through the options that emerge to reach decisions which by their very nature are complex but critical.

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