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Covid crisis a time to reveal our nation’s spirit

April 22, 2020

It is often said a crisis doesn’t change people, it reveals them.

As COVID-19 devastates countries and drags the global economy into recession, we’re witnessing the greatest disruption to the free flow of people across national borders since World War Two.  As nations draw back into themselves to protect the collective health of humanity, we must also be careful to guard the hard-earned understanding between people of different cultures we have achieved over the past 75 years of steadily growing global connectivity.

The responses of political leaders the world over aren’t just determining the impact the virus will have on their populations, they are sending strong signals to other countries about the value they place on working together once we have beaten the pandemic and it is time to recover and rebuild.

That is why it is so alarming to observe a heightened sense of competition between some countries. These are times for an urgent and collaborative global response, not populist political point-scoring. Laying blame for a pandemic does not save lives, it inflames divisions and results in greater discrimination against innocent people.  COVID-19 is a global challenge, and our response must be global in scale.  No country can afford to go it alone.

We’re fortunate not to have seen this populist political trend take hold in New Zealand. The actions being taken by the government are giving certainty and reassurance to New Zealanders. It is doubly reassuring to see our government’s sure-footed maintenance of our international relationships.

One example is the joint commitment we’ve signed with trade partners to keep our supply and trade links open throughout the current crisis.  This is critical to ensure supplies reach our hospitals and supermarkets, and our producers retain access to overseas markets.    Another example is our treatment of international students who have lost their jobs.  In contrast to some of our competitors, we have extended income support.  Education is a reputation game, and parents will remember who looked after their children in this time of need.

When the time comes to recover from this crisis, we will find that building a deep and trusting relationship with China has been one of New Zealand’s most beneficial achievements. The goodwill established through the hard work of diplomats and business people on both sides over the decades will be more important for New Zealand than ever over the coming years.  We do have legitimate questions about China’s transparency and openness in the early stages of its outbreak and expect these to be addressed.  At the same time, we need to acknowledge that China’s measures to contain the virus appear to be working, and that China will likely re-emerge fastest as the most significant engine of global growth in the post-COVID-19 world.  Trade figures from the first week of our lockdown are a case in point, with our exports to China growing by $14 million compared to the same week in 2019.

We can also look back to past periods of crisis to see just how powerful external trade is as a tool to lead ourselves to recovery.  In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, our economy was badly damaged and demand from traditional trading partners like Australia, USA and Europe remained weak for many years.   It was ultimately our trading partnership with China that led New Zealand’s economic recovery.  Between 2010 and 2014 our two way with China doubled, with more than three-quarters of the increase coming from exports.

With analysts expecting the impact of COVID-19 to well exceed that of the GFC, we will once again need to lean on our trading partners, and the strength of these relationships will determine the pace and success of our recovery.

For now, our most urgent task is to protect the health and lives of all New Zealanders.  Once we are through the worst of the crisis, our attention will turn to economic recovery.  We are an outward-looking country known for our resilience, for being even-handed and doing what works.  We will need to reach out and work closely with our partners, as we have done successfully for the last half-century.

This is not a time to panic or point fingers. It is time for us to reveal our true character.

Sir Don McKinnon is Chairman of the New Zealand China Council and former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. 

*This article was published in the New Zealand Herald on 22 April 2020.

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