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Advice to Melbourne from someone who’s done it before

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So maybe instead of advice, we could share what we (well, some of us) have learnt.

We learnt the economy isn’t about profit margins and sales data. The economy is about people. In a COVID-free space, people return to shops and cafes and they explore their own backyard.

The economy has taken a big hit, and people have lost their jobs and will continue to do so. It’s predicted that NZ’s unemployment rate will rise to 9 per cent by the end of 2020.

This is not welcome news, but consider that Sweden, which prioritised jobs and the economy, already has an unemployment rate of 10 per cent. People can’t work well if they are sick, caring for the sick or afraid of getting sick. And a COVID-free nation offers opportunities.

Once quarantine is sorted, such countries become attractive spaces for international students who might forego a virtual Ivy League education for a face-to-face one. Big-budget film producers and sporting events organisers see the value of a COVID-free environment and will pay top dollar. The economy will take a hit, but every life lost in its name will hit it harder.

We learnt that human rights are the rights of us all, together. The simple act of wearing a mask is a small sacrifice to protect another person. To get through COVID-19, we must think of others. Often the most outspoken critics of lockdown measures are those healthy and wealthy enough to avoid the worst impacts.

Nations that work as a team, not as individuals, fare the best. Australia’s Diamonds didn’t beat the Silver Ferns by playing as individuals; they beat them by working together.

We learnt to be kind to one another. In her commentary against lockdown measures, economics professor Gigi Foster (UNSW) talks about COVID-19 in terms of a war fought by soldiers. If you view something though the lens of war, you engage people as enemies. In NZ, the framing was different. Talk was about overcoming the pandemic with kindness and compassion.

When anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked to define civilisation, she didn’t define it through reference to battles won, lands conquered or enemies destroyed. She said the hallmark of civilisation was a healed thigh bone — a person can only survive such an injury with the care, kindness and compassion of others.

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We are still learning. NZ learnt many lessons: a healthy society underpins a functioning economy, teamwork makes the dream work, and kindness and compassion should drive action.

Other lessons were learnt but have been seemingly forgotten: homelessness was eradicated but has now come back, and wage subsidies made life bearable but they will soon end. And the final lesson we learnt was to stay strong.

It will be a tough few weeks, Melbourne. But look out for each other, think of each other and you will get you through this. By spring, with its warm weather and blossoms, hugging a stranger might just be OK.

As Laura Bear, a professor at the London School of Economics, who has been following NZ’s experience, emphasises, the last thing to go, and the first thing to resume, must be social relations.

Melbourne, kia kaha (stay strong).

Sharyn Davies is director of the Herb Feith Indonesia Engagement Centre at Monash University. She is in Auckland, waiting to come to Melbourne for her new role.

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