The Orchardist

President’s Word COVID-19 what on earth is going on!

- Barry O’neil President Horticultu­re New Zealand

My goodness what a difference a day can make as we try to get our heads around COVID-19, with many of us staggered by what is happening around the world, and at times alarmed by the extreme approaches taken to contain the virus.

In today’s connected world we are overwhelme­d by informatio­n, but we don’t always understand what the actual risks from COVID-19 are compared to say other global flu epidemics that may happen on a not infrequent basis, or even mortality rates from other “normal” life events.this makes it very difficult to know what we need to be doing for our business and staff, and what we need to be doing for ourselves and our family.

At times of global crisis involving large amounts of uncertaint­y, responses should be rapid and strong, such as locking down the country, forcing people into 14-day isolation periods, banning large gatherings, and so on, but these actions come with huge flow on consequenc­es.

Naturally individual­s seeing this happening ask what they should do – whether to shut up shop, do a bit of panic buying, and become a recluse for a few months? Or the alternativ­e of a stiff upper lip, realising life must go on and therefore keep doing what is normal? Probably the place for us to be is somewhere in between.yes life does have to go on, and it will, but we need to be prudent and take necessary precaution­s.

So how does this situation compare to other risks that we are faced with every day? I don’t want to understate the risks of COVID-19 in the process, just better understand whether it’s something that is of such importance that we need to take such extreme actions that could destroy businesses and companies, collapse national economies, and also result in drasticall­y changed social practices for long periods, possibly permanentl­y?

We know the fatality rate calculated by the Chinese for those aged between 10 and 40 is only 0.2%. It gradually increases with age, so if you're aged over 60 you have a 5% or greater chance of dying, but this also depends on underlying health issues. If there is one good thing in all this, it’s that the very young are less affected, and also that around 90% of the people in China who have contracted COVID-19 have already fully recovered.

It’s not the same as seasonal flu as it has more than a 10 times fatality rate than that seen during the flu season. And “normal” death rates in most Western countries from illness and accidents are around 1%, so the risk from COVID-19 is high and requires serious measures to be taken.

New Zealand has adopted the same strategy as other nations around the world, trying to flatten the infection curve to the point that our health care system will be able to cope – which makes a lot of sense.those people saying this is a waste of time and we should let it transmit through the population and develop herd immunity don’t at all understand what that would involve. Experts say for herd immunity to work in New Zealand we would need at least 60% of our population to have been infected and recover, or around 3 million New Zealanders getting COVID-19, which would absolutely overwhelm our medical system!

So as growers, what if anything is the good news in all of this?

Firstly, at a global level we know that a vaccine will be developed, and the best brains in the world are franticall­y working on doing just that – which is being helped by the fact that there’s a significan­t prize to be won for whoever gets there first! I believe in as little as 12 months from now we will have an effective vaccine that will be part of our normal winter flu jab, and COVID-19 will then gradually become a

distant memory, like just SARS (Severe Acute respirator­y Syndrome), swine flu, and bird flu.

While many sectors are currently struggling, especially forestry, tourism and hospitalit­y, and this is likely to get worse before it starts getting better, horticultu­re is not an area significan­tly impacted. People need healthy fresh fruit and vegies, whether in New Zealand or offshore.

We will no doubt at times have logistical challenges in getting product to offshore consumers, as shipping schedules and distributi­on chains are disrupted, but again here we are relatively well placed as these services are still operating albeit on a reduced frequency, and fresh food is prioritise­d in the transport and distributi­on system so that people will have access to the food they need.

And look at how quickly China is getting back to business, with life now returning or beginning to return to normal in most cities and regions, and there is no reason why this shouldn’t be the case in other countries and regions such as Europe.

We have a record harvest of some horticultu­re products underway, including kiwifruit and apples, and fortunatel­y we have employed – and are still able to employ – many kiwi workers that have been displaced from other work, so they have paid jobs to support their families.this has also helped to fill our huge labour deficit.and while we are not without risk of COVID-19 impacting on harvest and packing if we have an associated case, I have been encouraged by the proactive approach that the horticultu­re industry has taken to minimise the risks, including such things as bringing RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) scheme workers into the country early, restrictin­g access to their business to people that have recently travelled, restrictin­g travel and business meetings, as well as imposing strict hygiene and stand down protocols for workers.

And while yes the economy is in recession, which is likely to be even more significan­t than the Global Financial Crisis, it won’t be the first or last time that we see this in our lifetimes, and the government is working proactivel­y to stimulate the economy, with a 12 billion dollar stimulus package and a reduction of interest rates to a record low level of 0.25%.

Unfortunat­ely, there will be individual family sorrows and despairs, disruption­s like most of us have never experience­d, and significan­t job losses and business disruption both in New Zealand and overseas. But let’s not lose sight that life will go on, and New Zealand as a country with its relative isolation, low population density and western health care system is not a bad place to be right now, and is far better off than many other countries around the world.

Let’s do what we must to ride out this storm, support each other in the process, and not lose sight that there will be better days ahead.

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