04 December 2020

Looking Back on 2020

This article was first published in Exporter Today

One day last March, we had the awful task of telling more than 100 of our staff that they were out of work. Go home, don’t come tomorrow.

This was not because we chose to but because we were ordered to. Government told us that “we need your support to protect New Zealand and eradicate Covid-19. Enforcement measures may be used to ensure everyone acts together, now.”

There was a stiff jackboot behind all the ‘be-kind-to-each-other’ niceness. There was just no way that we could keep our distribution centres open.

Almost immediately, we started getting requests from clients, keen to claim one of a fast-growing number of exemptions and loopholes. They wanted us to bring staff back from isolation to unpack containers, where some goods deemed to be essential (with vanishing degrees of plausibility) could be found. We tried to accommodate those urgent requests as best we could.

The Government’s decision to try to distinguish between essential and non-essential services/people was a mistake. Flowers were essential if you bought them at a supermarket, but the florist shop had to remain closed - just like the butcher, the fishmonger and the fruit and vegetables shop.

Meantime, the new 'Zoomocracy', secure in their public sector jobs, enjoyed quality family time going on teddy bear hunts and signalling their environmental virtue by riding electric motorbikes (disguised as bicycles) through the car-less streets of their neighbourhoods.

It is easy to criticise the Government for these missteps, but we must forgive them, for they knew not what they were doing – and neither did most of us. These matters are not normally part of the curricula of media studies, political science, or public relations courses from whence many of our leaders graduated.

Furthermore, their lack of business experience was aggravated by calls from a pandemic of epidemiologists, dazzled by being suddenly catapulted from obscurity to stardom and oblivious to the economic and health consequences of their preferred response – lockdown.

Some importers panicked and stopped ordering, reckoning that, if stocks run low, we can always top them up later. Except, they couldn’t because the top-up shipments come by airfreight and most of it is carried in passenger flights, of which there are precious few these days. So, they compensated by ordering more by sea freight.

The ports, unable to recruit staff internationally and constrained by substandard road and rail infrastructure, choked. That’s the problem with supply chains, they are complex and a disruption to any part will usually raise unintended consequences elsewhere.

Not all our clients survived the lockdown, but most did. Some pivoted to web sales, which kept us busy. All staff came back to work.

As we come to the end of the horribilis year 2020, we are still to find out if our attempt to isolate ourselves in a bubble, separate and distant from the rest of the world, can work. With the help of real science (vaccines) we may yet get away with it and make 2021 a year to remember. Let's hope so.

Daniel Silva