Coronavirus: Nobel Prize-winning economist praises NZ's handling of COVID-19, slams United States

New Zealand's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been cited by one of the world's top economists as one of the best in the world.

Joseph Stiglitz' tick of approval comes as business leaders and some politicians here lament the destructive effect the strict lockdowns enacted to stem the spread of the virus has had on the economy in the short-term.

"Two countries illustrate likely lessons that will emerge," Dr Stiglitz wrote in Finance & Development, a quarterly journal published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

"If the United States represents one extreme, perhaps New Zealand represents the other."

Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.
Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz. Photo credit: Getty

The US has had the world's highest number of infections and deaths, ranking ninth in the world per capita in the latter. While some individual cities and counties have made efforts to stop COVID-19's spread, there has been little effort from the federal government - President Donald Trump has made numerous false claims about the virus' spread and severity, as well as spreading conspiracy theories about its origin.

Dr Stiglitz, who used to be chief economist at the World Bank and won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001, went on to describe how New Zealand's approach differed to that of the US.

"It's a country in which competent government relied on science and expertise to make decisions, a country where there is a high level of social solidarity - citizens recognise that their behavior affects others - and trust, including trust in government. 

"New Zealand has managed to bring the disease under control and is working to redeploy some underused resources to build the kind of economy that should mark the post-pandemic world: one that is greener and more knowledge-based, with even greater equality, trust, and solidarity."

Trump himself recently tried to portray New Zealand as having failed at containing the virus

"We've done an incredible job, but they're having a lot of outbreaks," he said two weeks ago, on a day New Zealand had six new cases - all part of the same cluster - and the US had almost 40,000.

The lockdowns New Zealand has used to stop uncontrolled outbreaks of the deadly disease have come at a cost, with billions being spent on wage subsidies and many businesses - particularly in Auckland, which has spent longer under level 3 restrictions than anywhere else - saying they couldn't survive another. 

The Government has said getting rid of the virus is the best option economically in the long-term, rather than taking the Swedish approach of controlled spread, or the United States' lack of coordination. New Zealand's unemployment level has remained low by interNational Standards, and despite the seven-week disruption from March to May, economic activity bounced back strongly in the following months.

"I don't think there's any comparison between New Zealand's current cluster and the tens of thousands of cases that are being seen daily in the United States," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said after Trump made his bizarre claim.

"We are still one of the best-performing countries in the world when it comes to COVID and our workers are focused on keeping it that way."

Elsewhere in his article, Dr Stiglitz said the pandemic would hit the poor and vulnerable the hardest, not just in terms of their health, but their wealth too.

"The pandemic broadens the threat from automation to low-skilled, person-to-person services workers that the literature so far has seen as less affected - for example, in education and health. All of this will mean that the demand for certain types of labor will decrease. This shift will almost surely increase inequality - accelerating, in some ways, trends already in place...

"While the pandemic has revealed the enormous cleavages across the countries of the world, the pandemic itself is likely to increase disparities, leaving long-lasting scars, unless there is a greater demonstration of global and national solidarity."

He urged global leaders to undertake a "comprehensive rewriting of the rules of the economy", calling for more focus on achieving full employment, cracking down on predatory banking, more protections for workers and the environment, and tax systems that don't favour the world's top earners.

"The pandemic won't be controlled until it is controlled everywhere, and the economic downturn won't be tamed until there is a robust global recovery. That's why it's a matter of self-interest - as well as a humanitarian concern - for the developed economies to provide the assistance the developing economies and emerging markets need. 

"Without it, the global pandemic will persist longer than it otherwise would, global inequalities will grow, and there will be global divergence."