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It's Y2K but with germs

Paul Brislen, Editor. 16 March 2020, 5:00 am

OPINION:

Brislen is Techblog's editor and once, many years ago, was the Y2K reporter for Computerworld newspaper.

Responses to the COVID-19 outbreak vary from person to person but more than one has suggested "it's just like the flu so what's the problem?"

I suggest it's more like Y2K.

In both cases we have a large-scale problem to be managed. We have impacts ranging across industries and geographies, affecting all who come across it one way or another.

But where most similarities lie are in the responses to the issue. With Y2K, techs worked around the clock for months ahead of time to ensure that on the day planes didn't fall out of the sky, nuclear power stations didn't erupt, banking systems didn't wipe out all our savings and countless other ordinary every day lives could carry on.

On the day itself, nothing happened. Techs gleefully monitored their stations for the first half hour or so but eventually the lure of the firework displays and staff drinks made up for not being at home with family and friends. Only the truly lonely sat in their cubicle ringing around checking on the end of the world (ahem) only to find it was business as usual.

And then the noise began. There was no problem, they said, it was all a hoax, they said, we didn't need to worry and run around filling in all that paperwork, they said.

It's gone on for 20 years now and still to this day I find people telling me it was an overreaction and there was no need for any of the TV commercials, the constant vigilance or the late nights spent looking for it.

COVID-19 is just like that and I fear we're now in a situation where a lot of people are saying we're overreacting before we actually get to the deadline itself.

The ideal situation is that we have relatively few cases here in New Zealand and that we avoid the worst excesses of the rest of the planet by learning from what is going on out there and making sure we step in at critical junctures.

One of those happened this weekend when the Prime Minister announced that anyone coming to New Zealand will now require 14 days in isolation before carrying on with their lives.

Already there has been whining - both that she should have done this sooner but (more loudly) that this is an overreaction and that the impact on the economy will be huge and it's just like the flu so why are we doing this?

Managing that balancing act between doing what's right from a public health perspective and doing what's right for the economy is a difficult matter at times like this. Already today I've seen conflicting advice - self-isolate, work remotely, try to keep at least 2m distance between you and everyone else at all times, wash your hands and use sanitiser where you can.

But I've also been advised to get out to the restaurants and support local businesses, don't let this get you down, don't hide away, spend money in the community and don't let COVID-19 get in the way of you living your life.

The first is a public health message, the second is a pro-economic survival message and both have their place.

Life is going to change, and in the short term things will be very different to our normal way of living. The impact on the tourism sector has been sharply felt. Airlines will reduce routes, staff will be laid off, travellers will stop coming to New Zealand and despite the best efforts, Kiwis won't feel much like travelling around the country on holiday I expect.

But the impact won't stop there - large scale events are being shut down (sporting and cultural events are already being cancelled or postponed) and that will filter through to more mundane, every day events. I've just spent half the weekend doing school sporting stuff as you do when you're a parent. Handing out shotputs and herding kids from sun shelter to starting lines for races.

I thought about hydration, I thought about sun protection, I thought about timing, I thought about age groups and running shoes… I did not wonder at all about whether the discus had been sanitised between each throw or whether that group of 20 kids huddling under the gazebo were all practicing good hygiene.

So school sports will be added to the list, shortly followed by school itself, and the malls will become off-limits for many and we have public transport to consider as well. The train is great, but when it's standing room only you start to wonder about social distancing.

We will have to all come to grips with that shortly and figure out just what it means for our businesses and for our selves and our families.

Hopefully, in a year's time, we will look back and there will be those people who call it all an overreaction because nobody died and we had dozens of people infected but they didn't overwhelm the system and we got through it OK. That really is the best case scenario.

But let's not pretend we don't need to plan and act in the short term, if we're to get to that.


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