A year ago today, amidst the ceremony and emotion of a historic day at Waitangi, Finance Minister Grant Robertson stepped out of a special dinner to take a call.
On the phone was Rodney Jones, principal of Wigram Capital, an advisory firm specialising in Asia. He is an economist and analyst, involved with research and plotting of major crises, including in China during the SARS 1 epidemic.
He was warning the minister that the virus hitting Wuhan was poised to spread around the world, and that the effects would be greater than anyone thought.
Jones then became one of the key advisors to the government on Covid-19.
Wuhan had gone into lockdown on January 20 and Jones was getting his information from several journalists who’d made it in before the gates shut, as well as medical experts in Hong Kong.
He says usually the lead on such events would come from the US organisation the CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – which did have a unit based in Beijing. But the Trump administration had closed that unit, leaving the heavy lifting this time to the World Health Organisation – encumbered with politics, and slower to act.
By Auckland Anniversary weekend in New Zealand, Jones was in Queenstown where the Chinese nationals there, who were in touch with what was really happening at home, had stripped the city of face masks. He says it was clear from their reaction they completely got it.
“WeChat was abuzz with what was happening – you just had to see what Chinese nationals were doing – it was clear that we were facing a major event,” he says.
By early February it wasn’t just Wuhan – Jones was getting data from all over China, 384 cities, tracking the transmission of Covid.
However, in China, once an event is politicised you can lose access to that data – and that’s what happened. It wasn’t that the saga was over – China had simply shut up shop.
“It was clear this was much worse than SARS1” he says.
By February 5 he was ready to call Robertson.
Jones says part of the reason New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea did well fighting the virus is because they respect the information coming out of Asia and have open lines of communication.
“We have connections. In the West they’re more removed. We may associate with the UK and the US emotionally with that kind of shared history, but we’re actually in the Asia region. I think our proximity and experience with Asia meant we were more open, and in some ways more respectful than what other governments were doing.”
A week later he was in Wellington presenting a report about the path of the virus, and the coming economic shock.
In today’s podcast, Jones talks to Sharon Brettkelly about how he was initially sceptical of lockdown, thinking it was an over-reaction. But what happened over the next 10 days in March – “the hop, skip and the jump” as cases leapt in number – changed his mind. An early lockdown was the only answer.
He also talks about the need for a reset with MIQ, how he sees the future playing out economically for New Zealand, and the need to reopen borders with Australia.
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