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COVID-19: 10 insights on moving forward

Published August 2020

Why is it so important to get things right with the COVID-19 response?

Between March 17 and April 25, the USA went from 4,632 cases with 85 deaths to 948,079 cases and 53,471 deaths. Over the same period, South Korea went from 8,235 cases and 75 deaths to 10,718 cases and 240 deaths. The two countries had similar starting points but much different trajectories, with the resulting social cost of deaths much lower in South Korea. This shows the importance of adequate planning and integrated and timely responses.

New Zealand is in a unique situation thanks to its globally distant location, cohesive culture, strong leadership and willingness to learn. We can learn not just from COVID-19, but also from the responses and outcomes of SARS, the GFC and other relatively recent global events. We can also learn from trends arising through this emergency, with some changes in attitudes and actions being potentially permanent while others are fleeting as conditions of the crisis.

None of us has a crystal ball to predict the future, so what are some of the learnings we need to consider to enable us, as a small country of diverse communities, to move forward with confidence:

  1. Firstly, appreciating the importance of New Zealand’s integrated health, social and economic policy, planning and implementation. This has been critical in taking a ‘whole of population’ approach. It has enabled significant positive health outcomes, and mitigated losses and grief for our whānau/families, while acknowledging the tough times this has created for social and economic outcomes. This aligned approach now needs to shift up a gear to enable businesses to respond to the new challenges while continuing to be the engine-room of the economy. While government can set the wider health settings, gains for the economy need to be enabled at a micro level through the decisions, investments and activities of businesses.
  2. Ongoing learning and development at an individual, organisational and industry level has never been more important. It has been very evident that the work of many professional bodies and industry organisations has enabled more considered and joined-up approaches to mitigating some of the impacts of the crisis. Industries that have more engrained approaches are able to ensure that individuals and firms are able to respond smarter.
  3. There are some good news research snippets showing that New Zealanders during the lockdown have been eating more healthy food in the absence of takeaways, that we are reading more and connecting through phone and online with friends and family. Conversely, we seem to be drinking more alcohol at home, although this may be a displacement from cafes and other establishments. This period has given more time for reflection, enabling people to consider online career development, career changes and savings to provide more resilience in the short, medium and long term.
  4. Online activity is now deeper, more entrenched and more pervasive for industry and sector groups and individual businesses. The challenge for businesses is how to use this to enable stronger and more resilient business outcomes on a sustainable basis. This can be through connecting more closely with customers, changing the way that staff work and ensuring the business can connect with multiple resources available online for the development of staff and the business.
  5. The markets for many businesses have changed fundamentally, for example in tourism, hospitality and to an extent retail. Even for those businesses that might have a focus on domestic tourism, businesses are now endeavouring to understand what this will mean for their goods and services and what needs to change. Media reports show businesses looking to ‘hibernate’, ‘hunker down’, ‘pivot’ or continue to operate within current business models. Some businesses will likely adopt a combination of approaches depending on their goods or services. ‘Transformation’ is the next paradigm in how we need to work.
  6. The roles of business leaders, whether at a chief executive, director or manager level, has become more visible. Leaders need to demonstrate the values of their business, particularly within those industries more impacted. Therefore, it is critical for them to take the time to work closely with their teams to understand the state of the business, formulate plans and evaluate the range of scenarios and implications of these before they are implemented. Plans need be considered in terms of what we need to do now, next month and over the period beyond, to sustain the business, employees and all customer facing experiences from the business. This is not easy, as many of these decisions will have enduring implications for staff and customers, and particularly for directors and company officers if they get things wrong!
  7. The responses from different stakeholders and partners through this process is critical. Government needs to provide as much certainty as it can, given the hardship that many businesses and staff are currently enduring. Achieving both its fiduciary and moral responsibilities means balancing interventions that are both effective and efficient to provide short-term and longer-term solutions. My personal assessment is that the effects of the COVID-19 public health response are becoming clearer in terms of their differential impacts across industry sector groups. This creates an opportunity to target these (as has been done to an extent with media and aviation) to provide the opportunity for these businesses to reset their product and service offers closer to potential market preferences. Local councils, government agencies and other public entities need to show leadership through retaining commitment to planned projects. Industries need to show leadership in their ability to assemble responses to the changed and ongoing evolving business conditions. At the same time, government needs to deeply consider what initiatives it can make to create a fundamental difference to our economic environment in the medium and longer term. Examples include a ‘wider bubble’ with Australia and potentially with our Pacific neighbours, and more specific interventions such as in infrastructure and housing to provide a fillip to the economy and improved social and economic outcomes.
  8. We know as a nation that we are resourceful and innovative, and evidence shows that we have supported the clear leadership of our Prime Minister and health professionals through the Director-General of Health. While the mood of the nation is very positive, we need an evidential basis to continue to ‘lock in’ the health gains on an ongoing basis. New Zealanders now want more certainty around plans beyond Alert Level 2. This is manifested by a strong sense of focus on businesses emerging from the lockdown ready to engage with customers. Understanding the implications of what Alert level 2 means that businesses will be better placed to be more resilient.
  9. The crisis has shown the importance of diversity or spread of business markets to ensure that companies are not overly dependent on specific markets. On a similar principle of diversity, we need to reflect the diverse Māori, Pacifica and other ethnic communities and how impacts of this crisis have not been equal in our populations. Evidence shows that in times of crisis, extremes in wealth and wellbeing become more pronounced and we know that we have significant disparities in health outcomes already. We need to ensure that these disparities do not become more pronounced.
  10. As a nation we have shown our ability to work together and mobilise people, particularly our public agencies involved in health, education, police and civil defence. We need to lock in these on a ‘systemic basis’ so that the different elements of the sectors connect (eg, the availability of PPE has shown how critical supply chains are) and we put our people, whānau/families and communities at the centre of these. This will likely mean greater alignment and direction between matters of national importance and those that can be resolved at a community level.

Lastly, writing this article on ANZAC Day reminds me of the importance of our ‘can do’ attitude and how we can work together to extol the values and behaviours of New Zealanders. This crisis has shown us who the real ‘rock stars’ in our communities are from the doctors, nurses, emergency workers and police to the many council and community workers who keep the social, economic, cultural and environmental fabric of our country together. ‘He waka eke noa – A waka which we are all in’.

Deryck Shaw, Director, Strategic Planning Consultancy, APR Consultants.