What if we responded to the pandemic with a walled-off, South Pacific free-trade zone, poses Nicholas Agar.

We can hope that the apparent mildness of the Omicron variant signals the coming end of the pandemic. Perhaps Omicron will displace more severe strains, and, if we’re lucky, be successively replaced by increasingly mild strains. With the help of our vaccines, we might soon turn Covid-19 into just another cold virus.

As we expect the end of the pandemic, we need to begin asking questions that times of crisis haven’t given us time for. These include many what-if questions. How might things have gone if we’d made different decisions?

Here’s one what-if inspired by a 1933 essay by the acclaimed economist John Maynard Keynes – “National Self-Sufficiency”. Keynes opens with the confession: “I was brought up, like most Englishmen, to respect free trade not only as an economic doctrine which a rational and instructed person could not doubt, but almost as a part of the moral law. I regarded ordinary departures from it as being at the same time an imbecility and an outrage.”

Presumably prompted by the heightening tensions in Europe, Keynes reflected on what it might take to protect England from dangerous “entanglements among nations”. National self-sufficiency would limit these entanglements. Keynes allowed that an England that opted for national self-sufficiency would be poorer. But in increasingly dangerous Europe he was prepared to countenance the economic costs of foregoing trade to reduce perilous entanglements.

The pandemic brought border closures and travel bans. We clearly accepted economic hits to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But we didn’t follow these measures as far as Keynes’ essay suggests that we might have. When we found that measures that sufficed to stamp out the original Wuhan strain of the SARS-Cov-2 and the first variants of concern ceased to work as well, we didn’t respond with measures sufficient to keep later variants out. Instead, we increasingly heeded the call of our economy.

North Korea’s reasons for isolating are ideological. Our motivation would be to avoid virological entanglements.

We ought to have been no less surprised that Covid-19 found a way through our defences than an oncologist is when cancer, another adversary that uses evolution against us, bounces back after a seemingly very successful round of chemotherapy. The measures New Zealand and other countries undertook to exclude the virus prompted it to evolve to bypass them.

What if New Zealand, Australia, and the Pasifika nations had responded to increasing outbreaks of coronavirus by thinking as Keynes did? We might have responded to the increasing transmissibility of the virus by severely restricting all travel or trade into our region. We would have practised not a national, but instead a regional self-sufficiency. People within the region would have to wait for the latest iPhone. But within this Covid-free zone, trade and travel would occur without let or hindrance.

There’s a tendency to think about autarky (a policy of national self-sufficiency) as an obvious absurdity. We look at the oppression and poverty of the hermit state North Korea, and view that as effective rebuttal of the very idea of seriously restricting trade and travel between nations. North Korea’s reasons for isolating are ideological. Our motivation would be to avoid virological entanglements. The South Pacific region would look to speedily reopen its borders as soon as the other regions of the world had done as we did and eliminated the virus, or, more likely the virus had evolved to a point at which it clearly causes illness no more severe than a cold.

Contemplating this as an alternative is not advocating it. It means taking it seriously enough to consider its potential benefits and pitfalls. We may conclude that it would have been foolish to respond to the pandemic with a walled-off, South Pacific free-trade zone. But we should approach it like Keynes and not with the reflexive knee-jerk that because this sound like autarky it must be wrong.

There would be serious downsides in forming this Covid-free, free-trade and travel zone. As the pandemic exploded around the world there were many New Zealanders who wanted to come home. When they did return many of them brought Covid-19 that escaped from managed isolation. Would we be prepared to exclude them?

Perhaps we would have to think about them as we do about travel restrictions during times of war. We understood that it was not easy to repatriate New Zealanders who had chosen September 1939 to visit uncle Albrecht in Munich. Would we be prepared to say “welcome home – but only when we are sure the coronavirus you may be infected with poses no greater threat than the common cold”? This is a question that contemplation of our Keynesian what-if should prompt us to answer.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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