Coronavirus: More Kiwis worried about jobs than the disease itself - survey

More people are worried about losing their jobs and incomes thanks to COVID-19 than falling ill with the disease.

Since arriving in New Zealand in late February, more than 700 Kiwis have contracted the disease, responsible for more than 46,000 deaths worldwide since emerging in China late last year.

With no vaccine yet and just how to best treat it still a mystery, governments around the world - including ours - have put their citizens under varying forms of lockdown, including temporarily shutting down non-essential businesses.

The effect will be a "quantum economic shock" worse than the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said on Wednesday, plunging economies worldwide into deep recessions. Treasury has warned unemployment could hit double-digits - the worst it got during the GFC was 6.7 percent. The last time New Zealand had unemployment above 10 percent was 1993.

"Seventy percent of New Zealanders are concerned about the economic impact, and the impact it will have on their jobs - that hasn't changed since we went into lockdown," Jason Shoebridge of data consultants Kantar told The AM Show on Thursday. 

"That's much greater than the proportion of people who are worried about their health. Approximately about 34 percent of people are worried about falling sick."

Experts have said if the lockdown is ignored, modelling shows 14,000 Kiwis could lose their lives. 

Kantar has been surveying Kiwis weekly to track the response to COVID-19. Shoebridge said while there have been only a few cases here so far, and just a single death, "I suspect that everyone knows someone who is suffering now as a result of the economic impact".

The longer it goes on, the more worried he is about Kiwis' mental health.

Milford Asset Management senior analyst Frances Sweetman said no one knows just how bad the economic hit is going to be, even if we all obey social distancing rules and manage to eliminate local transmission of the virus relatively quickly. 

"The reality is if we come out of lockdown because we managed to quash the transmission of this virus, our borders will need to stay shut because other countries will not have managed to do that. That means we're in an economy that is simply smaller and not functioning the same as before this outbreak happened." 

International tourism is non-existent, with the borders shut to foreigners, and domestic tourism in a state of limbo with Kiwis told not to leave the house, except for essential trips to things like the doctor and supermarket - and even then, people shouldn't venture out of their neighbourhood where possible.

"We don't have any real data to see how we're going through this immediate period, but also we don't know how we're going to come out of it," said economist Shamubeel Eaqub, who's been advising the Government's COVID-19 select committee.

"There are just so many unknowns. We don't really have a template that we've seen in history. Last time it happened was the Spanish Flu - that was a long time ago and the world looked very different."

Shamubeel Eaqub.
Shamubeel Eaqub. Photo credit: Newshub Nation/Getty

There have been predictions of rolling lockdowns lasting up to 18 months. This would be three times longer than a typical recession, said Eaqub, and there's not a lot we can do about it except keeping Government spending up.

"Until the disease is under control, the reality is we're going to see different pace of change and responses all around the world. Not only will we have the impact with our global connections, but the countries we are dealing with will be experiencing it at different times. 

"So the economic consequences and the health consequences might come in waves, and might last for a long time."

Sweetmas said there are a "web of issues" to untangle, and even eliminating the virus won't be an instant cure for the economy, based on what's happening in China.

"We're supporting retailers pay staff wages - of course that is absolutely the first priority - but do we support the shopping centre owner who isn't managing to get any rent from his tenants? Do we support the cinema operator who still hasn't had any visitors in six months? 

"Because if you look at what's happening with gradual back-to-work in China, even though people are going back to work Monday to Friday, they're staying at home at the weekend." 

New Zealand is well-placed, Eaqub said, as our massive food sector is doing incredibly well and we've kept export links up and running - as long as the local lockdown is short and effective. 

"As long as the economic infrastructure is protected I think we'll be in a relatively good position - much more so than in many other countries where there is this ongoing fear holding people back, even if they don't have a lockdown. That can go on for many months.

"I would rather we had essentially  a very good, successful lockdown and then a very open domestic economy that follows afterwards, regardless of what happens internationally."

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