When I was a little girl, my grandfather told me the story of his father walking five miles for half a day's work and five miles home again during the Depression years. Times were so tough that he was eventually shipped off to the country – Blenheim to be exact – to an aunt and uncle who owned a farm because his parents couldn't afford to look after him and his baby brother. He wasn't retrieved from the farm until years later when my great-grandfather had secured regular work.
My grandmother, whose father was the local milkman (it bears mentioning that he was married to her mother), remembers him giving free milk to some families who he knew couldn't pay him so they wouldn't starve. Her mother kept the family's savings in jars buried deep in the garden because she didn't trust the banks' ability to withstand another economic disaster.
Many of us grew up hearing similar stories about the Great Depression from our grandparents. Even after living through the significant shock of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, I – perhaps naively – never dreamed that we could face another Great Depression.
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But here we are.
Regardless of whether or not you support the Government's handling of the Covid-19 crisis, we're all going to face a devastating economic downturn. We're seeing the first casualties already. Two days into the lockdown, we had 23,000 more people on benefits than we did at the same time last year. That will have increased in the weeks since and will increase drastically when the Government wage subsidy runs out. Burger King is in receivership. Bauer has closed. Telco 2degrees has laid off 120 staff. NZME, which owns the Herald, has reduced its workforce by some 200 positions and asked staff to take temporary salary cuts of 15 per cent. It seems pertinent to mention that I am one of those in the 200, and I'm sad to say that next week's column will be my last.
The cuts we're seeing now are just the tip of the iceberg. Forecasting released this week suggests that in a worst-case scenario, we could hit 26 per cent unemployment. That translates to a huge amount of suffering, poor health, shorter life expectancies and yes, increased death rates.
I agree that something drastic had to be done to save lives and prevent the overwhelming of our health system. After a three and a half week lockdown, we now have a tiny handful of new cases each day, a mercifully small percentage of deaths, and we've bought ourselves time to establish important systems like contact tracing and compulsory border quarantine. Whether we got it right, or went too hard not early enough, will be a matter for historians to debate. What we must focus on now is a compassionate, balanced and safe approach to lifting the lockdown and triaging our economy.
Broad-brush, blunt measures may have brought us to our enviable position, but now we need a return to nuance. We need to get as many people safely back to work as we can. An early example of an absurdity of the broad level 4 lockdown was the ban on golf course groundspeople continuing their work. Being on a tractor in the middle of an enormous deserted golf course is probably one of the safer places you could be during a pandemic, yet it wasn't allowed until more than two weeks of lockdown had passed.
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Towns still with no cases of Covid-19 have been locked down with the rest of us. The Government was able to scramble enough workers to print, package and deliver thousands of packages of schoolwork all over the country while local newspapers – often the only source of local news – have been shut down. While we can all appreciate the hard work that goes into implementing a lockdown with no precedent to emulate, we should also be able to agree that there have been some decisions made that haven't made a great deal of sense.
Now is the time to fix that. Now we need to prepare to move out of this lockdown as quickly as we can. Unless we register a surprise outbreak over the next few days, we should move to level 3 on Wednesday or, at the very latest, the Tuesday after Anzac weekend. If we remain locked down for longer, it will become harder and harder to justify the decimation of people's livelihoods when we have so few cases.
It will also become more difficult for us to afford the recovery. The Government can only throw around so much money before it gets into trouble. More pressingly, the banks can only excuse or extend so many repayments before they get into strife. What some New Zealanders may be unaware of is that the Open Bank Resolution means that banks that get into trouble could, after exhausting other avenues (which aren't generally plentiful in a depression), access the funds of their depositors to enable them to keep trading. In layman's terms, that means that if your bank failed, your account could be frozen and some of your money taken. You may or may not get it back.
At this stage, we're hopefully some way off a bank crisis, but if we can't figure out a way to balance public health and economic considerations soon, that could be where we're heading. Banks are already going without the lion's share of six months worth of mortgage revenue. If, after that time, tens of thousands of people still can't afford to pay their debts, it won't take long for things to unravel.
So let's use every nuanced tool we have available to us. Let's protect the vulnerable, require businesses to prove they can operate safely before reopening, seriously consider regional alert levels, and continue with our physical distancing and virus hygiene protocols. But let's also move quickly to staunch the bleeding of our troubled economy. Otherwise, we may need to start including suicide statistics, domestic violence call-outs and bankruptcy numbers in our daily briefings.