Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

OPINIONBusinessApril 26, 2020

After Covid-19, we rebuild our economy with a new focus, and a new mantra

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

Business after Covid: The pandemic is causing enormous disruption, but disruption can be an incredibly positive force. We must grasp the chance to reset, writes Cecilia Robinson, founder of My Food Bag, in the fourth of a special business series.

Out of every great challenge arises a greater opportunity. And it’s hard to think of a greater challenge than that we face right now with Covid-19. Around the world, governments are facing a dilemma. How do you protect the health of your citizens while at the same time protecting your economy? 

This is an incredibly difficult balancing act and getting it wrong can have tragic results.

In Europe, health systems have become overwhelmed, thousands are dying daily, and governments have been left with no choice but to put in place longterm lockdowns to contain the virus until a vaccine is developed.

In my homeland of Sweden, it seems to me the government has chosen the economy over its people. As a result, the death rate in Sweden is now 10 times the rate of neighbouring Finland. But it’s becoming clear that Sweden will still pay a high economic price, with sharp drops in economic activity being recorded in the first two weeks of April. 

By going hard and going early, New Zealand has largely avoided the chaos that is befalling Europe. We’ve done this because we decided to put our people first. 

That’s something every New Zealander should be proud of. We’re saving lives by staying home, and we’re doing this willingly because it’s the right thing to do. That is why I love this country and why I’m proud to call it home.

Read more from the series:
Allbirds’ Tim Brown: How Covid-19 will help us unite against the climate crisis
Roger Dennis: What Christchurch’s recovery has to teach us about post-lockdown NZ
Kono’s Rachel Taulelei: Safety, sovereignty, regeneration: on Māori business, post-Covid

We now have a very real chance to be the first country in the world to successfully eliminate Covid-19 from our population. Achieving this is the most critical thing we can do to protect our economy. While activity in the rest of the world will remain subdued as they attempt to flatten their curves, by eliminating the virus, we will be able to return to business as usual quicker.

This is not to say there won’t be economic pain. There will be and the coming months will be challenging for us as a country. How we respond to this economic challenge will be a defining moment for New Zealand. 

Why? Because this Covid-19 pandemic provides New Zealand with an opportunity to hit the reset button. 

It allows us to look us in the mirror and ask ourselves the challenging questions. What are we doing? Where are we going? Can we do things better?  The answers to these questions help us shape our vision and define our ambition. They can help change our mindset.

People often hear me talking about the need for a growth mindset in order to be successful. Now, more than ever, New Zealand needs a collective growth mindset.

A growth mindset helps you to see the opportunities, understand and mitigate the risks and drives you forward with urgency. It requires you to take a long-term view and to take bold decisions. But most importantly, a growth mindset means you put people first. 

Putting people first means they should be at the centre of your decision making. Doing right by your people is always the right thing to do. 

Like our health response, our economic response must put people first.

Our immediate priority must be reviving and developing a robust and sustainable domestic economy. A thriving domestic economy means job creation and wage growth. It provides a future for our young people and taxes to fund our social services.

It is the business leaders and entrepreneurs who will identify the opportunities, develop solutions and turn these into thriving businesses. The government needs to be open to using the solutions developed by the private sector and embracing of the opportunities they will provide.

The government also has a crucial role to play. While it has signalled that it will be investing heavily in infrastructure to stimulate the economy, it is equally important that it backs local business. Not only through procurement, but by also protecting Kiwi companies from unfair competition, especially as global trade revives. This is not necessarily about putting in place tariffs and duties, but it is about ensuring a level playing field. Looking across the Tasman, Monday’s announcement that Google and Facebook will have to pay media outlets for news content was met with support in that country. 

Our attitudes as consumers must also change. We need to back our local producers, suppliers and manufacturers. As business leaders we need to support our fellow business owners by sourcing domestically wherever possible. Buy New Zealand made must become our new national mantra.

We need to once again learn to trade with ourselves, at least in the mid-term. We need to breathe new life into our manufacturing sector by providing the right incentives and the right regulatory environment. We need to provide long-term assurance and support for those businesses that commit to manufacturing locally and not simply shun them when offshore options become available again. 

We need to be brave and bold in our decision making and be prepared to challenge the norm if we hope to capitalise on the opportunity that Covid-19 presents. With New Zealand looking more and more likely to become a sanctuary, surely, we must take advantage of this on a global stage rather than get snowed with debt. Simply, welcoming foreigners who can significantly contribute to and invest in our economy should be one of those cornerstone decisions.

Another brave decision should be to urgently review the Auckland Port location and shift this to Northland. Never has this opportunity been clearer or the opportunity more important. 

“Welcome to clean and green New Zealand” doesn’t seem quite as appealing when you reach Auckland and see all the containers, cars and huge operations on prime waterfront land. Brave and prompt decision making in this space could transform Auckland forever and also provide much needed support for the regions. 

This type of decision making should accelerate the move by professionals across New Zealand. No longer will you need to live in one of the big centres to be close to your work. What this pandemic has taught us is that if you have a good internet connection and laptop, you can work anywhere. 

We are unlikely to go back to a time when all staff need to be an office together from 8-5. Instead, technology will empower staff to work when they want and how they want. The demand for large corporate offices is likely to fall while the demand for a home with an office is likely to increase. 

While Covid-19 is causing enormous disruption, disruption can be an incredibly positive force. Disruption brings advancement in the same way that challenges bring opportunities. As a country, the disruption caused by this pandemic will force us to think harder and to be more agile and, if we embrace the opportunity provided, we will be stronger as a country. 

And above all: Buy New Zealand made.

Cecilia Robinson is co-CEO at Tend and co-founder of My Food Bag.

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