The other night I went out to a restaurant. Should I be worried that I breathed in coronavirus? Or should I be more anxious about an even more menacing outbreak spreading contagion throughout the world – stupidity?
At the time of writing, more than 3800 people have died and almost 110,000 have been infected by Covid-19 in 81 countries, the vast majority in China, where the virus emerged late last year. The World Health Organisation has so far stopped short of declaring a pandemic but that may be just a matter of time as the virus probably has yet to peak.
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There are hotspots of Covid-19 in Italy, Iran and South Korea. New Zealand is not immune, with three confirmed cases and a shocking and widespread outbreak of racism, xenophobia, doomsday predictions and panic buying. I couldn't buy toilet paper or rice at my local supermarket for a day.
Like other countries, our share market has caught a cold, tertiary education, tourism and the hospitality sectors are badly affected and begging for a lifeline. Our exporters, airlines and manufacturers are taking action to stimulate sales, mitigate exposure to their bottom lines and pressure on cash flows, and finding ways to work around disruption to supply chains which have become so dependent on China as well as deal with opportunistic price rises in components and stock from surgical masks and hand sanitisers to mobile phones.
Events and public gatherings are being hit too, from conference cancellations to Auckland's much-loved Chinese Lantern Festival. And will the Olympics in Japan still proceed? Are we going to close schools too like Italy and Japan? Do I need to use an app or can we have street cameras so I can monitor if I was in proximity to a commuter who may, or may not, have coronavirus that I passed on the crossing? Stop this right now.
Fear and anxiety spread fear and anxiety.
Headlines, exaggerated accounts, fake news, unabridged political criticism of the response to a national health crisis, tides of misinformation and scary social media chatter claiming imminent power cuts, contaminated water supplies and food shortages all skew our social and economic wellbeing. They test our resilience and confidence, our self-help survival instincts, that will make us ready for recovery.
China watchers are forecasting that, under present circumstances, it is still likely that the Chinese economy will have recovered significantly by mid- to late-April, but as the virus spreads, it is hard to know what the state of other economies will be in by then.
And just as the world has been concerned that the damage to the Chinese economy would hurt global growth, the Chinese Government is concerned that the spread of the virus around the world will impact China's recovery.
Let's get some perspective.
Yes, we have five confirmed cases of coronavirus but are in the containment stage of a concerted national action plan. We are asking people to voluntarily self-quarantine if they have returned to New Zealand from one of a list of travel-ban countries where the virus has erupted, carrying out testing on suspected cases, tracing people who may have been in contact with an ill person and given clear instructions to stay at home and call the helpline if you are feeling unwell and have flu-like symptoms such as a fever, cough or fatigue.
I don't want to understate or misrepresent the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, but common sense, listening to instructions, heeding Ministry of Health advice and taking preparatory steps to work through any potential disruptions to daily life and business will see us through in the short and long term.
Treasury is working on three scenarios, ranging from a short-term impact through to a global recession, as the world economy plunges deeper into turmoil. Affected businesses and their workforces are getting immediate help to tide them over. Banks, IRD and other agencies are being encouraged to also provide interim relief.
Businesses can also work around any need for isolation. With the technology and connectivity available today, you don't have to be in the office to be working.
But this is also a time to look at de-risking the enterprise from reliance on too few markets and too few suppliers. It's also time to remember the big picture, the one you want to create when this crisis passes, and plan how you will kickstart business and re-build momentum.
Past experience with pandemics shows that economic recovery can be swift. You have to be ready to ride the upturn and surge in demand.
Life can go on – and despite the panic stories, people with coronavirus do not all die. Many do recover.
Our challenge, as is that of every other country, is in managing uncertainty, preparing for recovery, and not giving in to fear of the virus' unknown and unquantifiable consequences.