magazine text block
In late February, New Zealand reported its first case of the coronavirus. Within a month, we had introduced a four-level alert system. By 11:59 p.m. on March 25, the country was in lockdown. It wasn’t until June 8 that we fully emerged from our homes.
Life hasn’t completely returned to normal. Months after the pandemic began, we were still required to trace our whereabouts using a government app and get tested for COVID-19 if we were feeling unwell. Hand sanitizing, of course, is part of the daily routine. Tourism has all but dried up with our borders so seriously restricted.
I think I speak for all my fellow Kiwis when I say it is tragic to have lost, as of October, 25 lives to the virus — even if this figure is far below that of most other industrialized countries. But at the same time, we feel relieved that we acted early, we acted together, and the pandemic did not get away from us like it has elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. We are not complacent. In August, we experienced a second outbreak — of some 150 cases — in Auckland, our biggest city. We have our eyes open to the economic consequences. However, in New Zealand, at least for now, we are feeling a little safer.
Not that it’s always been easy.
Like many people around the world, I have been cut off from loved ones. My parents still live in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I have family all over the country. For years, I have traveled a lot for both family and work. The enforced break from overseas colleagues is hard.
In the absence of travel, I have increasingly felt claustrophobic. New Zealand feels small now.
magazine quote block
magazine text block
But if I think about what I have observed as chair of New Zealand’s Digital Council, a government advisory group focused on digital and data-driven technologies, and as someone with extensive networks in the business, government, and not-for-profit worlds, I would say New Zealanders learned a lot about ourselves during lockdown.
The first major lesson was coming to grips with the scale of the digital divide in the country, and what we might do to address it. Overnight, COVID-19 made us all reliant on technology for work, education, and social connection. This proved to be a challenge: Evidence suggests one in five Kiwis lacks access to devices or the internet — or lacks the skills, motivation, and trust needed to go online.
Some of our most vulnerable really struggled. But the country rallied. We saw people from all walks of life collaborate in new ways to get others online.
Telecommunication companies joined forces with charities and the government to get devices into children’s hands for online education. Data caps were removed. The ministry of education is on track to getting 80,000 new households online. Other agencies are putting their efforts into getting more than 300 Māori communities connected.
COVID-19 also taught us important business lessons.
Talking to our industry and community networks, the digital council learned that Kiwi firms needed a better e-commerce infrastructure to do business online, including a serious skills boost, and incentives to adopt cloud-based technologies. Small to medium enterprises are the lifeblood of the New Zealand economy, but we found big business needed help too.
Our government is responding to these challenges. New Zealand is steadily adopting 5G and cloud-based technologies. New digital skills training for small business and digitally excluded communities is being rolled out.
How will New Zealand take the opportunities offered by digital and data-driven technologies as we continue forward? As a country, how will we build on what was started during lockdown and not simply return to the pre-COVID norms? What is our role in assisting other nations to do the same?
Perhaps, these are the burning questions for countries the world over.