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The BulletinApril 2, 2020

The Bulletin: Support needed for those with least

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Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Rising tide of hardship putting strain on services, big wage cuts coming at Fletchers, and fears many hospitality businesses won’t be viable after lockdown.

We’re beginning to get a picture of how the Covid-19 economic shock will hit those living in the most hardship, and that picture is frightening. For those who were already struggling before this began, this will likely be a time of hugely increased hardship, and their numbers are set to swell.

We can see that from the struggles people are having to get through to Work and Income right now, because of skyrocketing demand. Radio NZ reports Work and Income have had to field 75,000 calls in the four days up to that report coming out, an astonishing figure which has left many of those calling waiting for hours. Auckland Action Against Poverty’s Ricardo Menéndez March said people “are going for days without accessing emergency assistance for things like food grants or even get into income support for those that are recently unemployed.” There have been a range of government changes to give more support for the unemployed, including those that have the potential to lighten the load on the system, but those on the benefit will still be living in poverty.

And what’s more, an even bigger wave of unemployment is coming – but nobody really knows quite how big it will be. Stuff reported on the appearance of finance minister Grant Robertson at yesterday’s Epidemic Response Committee meeting, noting that the minister was light on specific figures, like how many people were applying for the benefit at the moment. However, both he and Treasury agreed that the unemployment rate would almost certainly be higher than what it hit in the GFC – then it got to 6.7%, this time around double digits seems more likely.

The crisis has also put immense pressure on the charity sector. Newshub reports that the Māngere Budgeting Services Trust is right up against it, with bare shelves after demand for food parcels almost tripled. They say they need financial support from the government to keep going. A similar picture comes from the Christchurch City Mission, who Stuff reports have found themselves having to meet a range of needs they didn’t previously have to. “We are increasingly seeing elderly people who have never contacted us before, and who don’t have a financial need to use our service, but they don’t have that support environment around them to meet that need as their food supply is dwindling,” said missioner Matthew Mark.

This is a crucial time for a lot of people’s lives, and the events of the coming months could set their trajectories for years to come. We’ve seen that in previous recessions, and we’ll see it again now. So if you can help, now is when it is needed most. If you’ve got time, you can volunteer it, if you’ve got money, you can donate it. Here’s a collection of ideas for how you can get involved.

Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”

Wage cuts are coming thick and fast for all sorts of industries right now, but it’s looking particularly bad in construction, where activity has basically stopped. It’s worrying for some of the biggest players too – Stuff’s Anuja Nadkarni reports that some Fletchers staff could be looking at losing a huge share of their income, as part of a 12 week plan to get the company through the uncertain lockdown and post-lockdown period. Fletchers executives are also taking a 15% cut over 12 weeks. The E tū union says the latter pledge is a bit disingenuous, as some staff could end up seeing their income fall by 70%.

Speaking of the construction industry, the government could be about to make a big move into trying to build things. Newsroom’s Dileepa Fonsecka reports that consideration is currently being made by senior ministers to reform Crown Infrastructure Partners so that it’s more like the old Ministry of Works. The aim would be to sidestep financing concerns in the industry to simply charge ahead with projects, to create employment and offset the likely large loss of jobs through other parts of the economy. There were two other measures announced yesterday aimed at bolstering the commercial infrastructure industry – a pledge to pick out some “shovel ready” projects that can start within six months, and advance payments for firms whose NZTA contracts are on hold.

Dire predictions are being made about the viability of hospitality businesses after the lockdown ends, reports the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Aimee Shaw. In tourists hotspots like Wanaka and Rotorua, the fear is that around half of businesses simply won’t be able to reopen, whereas in places like Christchurch and Wellington it will be more like 20-30% – so still pretty bad for an industry where margins can be very thin. A big problem is that the only way through for many will be through significant borrowing, which they’ll then have to spend years paying off – and in those tourist-heavy areas, will there even be customers?

If you’re working from home at the moment, you’ve almost certainly been recently introduced to the joys of Zoom calls. But as the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Chris Keall reports this morning, there are questions being raised about whether it is secure enough for the meetings of MPs and Cabinet. Zoom claims itself as an end-to-end encrypted service, but according to The Intercept’s reporting, that’s not actually true. The fear of one security expert spoken to by the Herald is that either the PM’s office wasn’t aware of security concerns around Zoom when discussing restricted and sensitive material, or they’ve relaxed their requirements because of the crisis. Incidentally, we’ve just published this guide to internet privacy and security by tech journalist Henry Burrell, which is particularly useful if you’re spending a lot more time online right now.

The stocks of flu vaccines are there, but they’re not getting to the people that need them, reports Newshub’s Michael Morrah. There’s really high demand for vaccines this year (for obvious reasons) and the government has instructed at-risk groups to be proactive about getting their jab. However, access has ended up being difficult for some people, and some are seeing their appointments get cancelled. Many GPs in particular are finding supplies are running short, but the story suggests pharmacies are doing a bit better. Speaking of the flu, Dr Siouxsie Wiles has written about the Flutracking project, and how mass participation in symptom tracking could save lives.

We hear a lot about the repairing of the ozone layer as inspiration for fighting climate change. This piece from Stuff’s Olivia Wannan goes a bit further, reporting on research that shows New Zealand actually saw significant climate change benefits from that earlier fight. The hole in the ozone layer contributes to drier weather and hotter temperatures, which means that we’ll theoretically have lower chances of damaging droughts as it closes. Of course, if emissions aren’t also cut, any gains made in ozone will unfortunately be lost to heating through carbon.

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Pages from the official COMPAC booklet issued by the New Zealand Post Office. Courtesy: Archives New Zealand (R21682129).

Right now on The Spinoff: Bronwyn Holloway-Smith writes about the remarkable undersea cable that keeps New Zealand anchored to the rest of the world. Scott Hamilton writes about the lessons of smallpox in 1913, and why we should be wary of the misuse of power in the name of public health. Guitarist Brian Purington from Auckland post-punk band Swallow the Rat writes about their US tour being cut short, and coming back with a case of coronavirus. Alice Webb-Liddall wraps a list of free stuff available over the internet to keep you going. Simon Day speaks to three newly appointed Māori professors at the University of Otago about why putting te ao Māori at the centre of their work is so important.

And here’s a brand new video series from The Spinoff to get into – it’s called Final Mix, and features music journalist Yadana Saw chatting to musicians about their albums, and listening to them in the tough testing ground of the car. The first episode features country star Tami Neilson, read about it and watch it here.

Both major print media companies are currently in the process of laying of a huge number of columnists, presumably because budgets have crashed. There are a fair few I’ll miss reading, and among them will be criminologist Jarrod Gilbert. I’ll just share a quick excerpt of his last (paywalled) column, and then explain why it’s a shame to see these people get cut.

“Just the other day I saw a brilliant example of how small things can make a big difference. In an article mentioning sentencing, the journalist added a very simple line explaining what a life sentence actually is. We have all heard the term countless times, but I’m surprised how few people can define it. (A life sentence means you must spend a minimum period behind bars before you are eligible for parole, and if released you must live under a number of conditions and can be recalled to prison at any time until you die, i.e. for life.)”

Now, I had no idea that was the case. I’m serious, I like to think of myself as a somewhat informed person, and I had no idea a life sentence meant there were lifelong conditions. Sure, Gilbert was saying that he had read it in a news report – but why does that detail about the justice system matter? That often takes an expert to unpack. I fear that some of the context and nuance provided by good columnists who actually know something about what they’re writing about could now be lost. I worry about what sort of mere opinioneers will be brought in to fill the void. And lastly, a lot of these columnists got gigs because they’re just great writers, and I’ll miss reading their craft.

Finally in sport, an incredibly impressive set of efforts by some athletes to keep their skills sharp. The U17 Football Ferns have put together a youtube compilation of trick shots, as they find ways to stay occupied amid the lockdown. The music on the clip will maybe not be for everyone, but some of the kicks are jaw-dropping.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme.

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