Coronavirus - 2020's greatest risk to our region
The greatest risk to our region this year is from the coronavirus. That is why, with Mayors Rachel Reese and Tim King, I have called a public meeting at my Nelson Electorate office this Thursday from 5pm.
The coronavirus (technically known as Covid-19), was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December. It is a viral infection similar to the flu which causes a fever, cough and shortness of breath, with symptoms appearing 2-14 days after exposure. The latest numbers have 80,000 infections and 2,500 fatalities. The disease became a pandemic this week, meaning it is now a global issue with infections spreading outside China, particularly in Italy, South Korea and Iran.
Our Government’s response to the coronavirus was initially too slow. The US, UK and Australia started screening flights on 22 January but we did not do so until 27 January. We were also slower than other countries in issuing official advisories against travelling to infected areas. I have been contacted by Nelsonians travelling through our airports, concerned at the slackness of the screening. The self-quarantining of people travelling into New Zealand from infected areas was also inadequate. The Government did a good job of managing the New Zealanders on the cruise ship, Diamond Princess in Japan, by ensuring they were properly quarantined but also well cared for.
China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner and the port restrictions are rapidly impacting on that trade. Forestry imports have slowed, our ports are accumulating logs and dozens of forestry workers have had their hours and incomes cut. There is also a potential problem for our fruit exports with thousands of refrigerated containers stuck in ports.
The travel ban is hitting the tourism sector nationally. We are also seeing tourism slow globally as people are more cautious of long haul international flights while the disease is spreading. International students from China are NMIT’s biggest market. It is not just the impact on the polytechnic but the loss of millions of dollars of accommodation and other spending that will affect the region.
I am also worried about supply lines being interrupted for other sectors. I have reports of building supplies being run down that could disrupt the building sector and other imports needed for our manufacturers.
Neither I nor the Government can insulate the region from these global effects. Our job is to do everything possible to keep New Zealand free of the disease but also help protect our businesses and jobs from the economic fallout.
We may need to consider a wage subsidy programme for small businesses like what National implemented in response to the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes to help get businesses through.
There is a lot of uncertainty about where the coronavirus will go. My hope is that the impact will be short term and we can quickly recover. However, we need to be well informed, work together and plan for all possibilities so as to help manage the risks and impact on people’s health, businesses and jobs.