Covid-19 and the surveying profession: A New Zealand perspective
Will we be able to maintain a Covid-19 free country or could it be that we will eventually suffer due to the lack of herd immunity? Will we see more Covid-19 business impacts in three to four months? Only time will tell.
These are unprecedented days for the global community. The Covid-19 global pandemic shows every sign of having the greatest global health impact since the 1918 Spanish flu.
As of July 12th, 2020 there have been approximately 13,000,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and about 570,000 deaths across 215 countries and six continents1 It is clear from the data that the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions are most at risk. Although the author of this article falls into one of these “at risk” categories, he is most fortunate to live in an isolated country where the government listened to its medical experts, where its Prime Minister and government exercised strong, compassionate leadership, and where open, factual daily media briefings on the virus and its progress were held. New Zealand was largely united in its determination to try to eliminate the Covid-19 threat. From March 26th all nonessential activity was locked down for four-and-a- half weeks. Everyone was limited to their own family or personal “bubbles” in what was known as the Level 4 response. This was followed, on April 28th, by a movement back to Level 3 where family or personal ”bubbles” could be slightly extended. On May 14th the country moved to Level 2 – a “back-to-work” scenario. Here social distancing rules continued, but group meetings of up to 10 people were permitted. On 8 June we moved to Level 1 (sensible precautions) where work places, shops and sports facilities have fully re-opened and commercial life is returning to normal. As of the time of writing (12th July), the country has gone almost two months without any cases of community transmission. In this time the only reported cases have arisen from returning travelers who are confined to government isolation facilities.
The economic cost, however, has been and will be high. Our borders remain closed, the unemployment rate which was at about 4%, is rapidly moving higher (although how high it will become is uncertain) and the tourist industry (worth perhaps as much as 10% of GDP2) is decimated. Building activity has fallen sharply, and forward business confidence indicators are weak. All this has happened despite massive government stimulus spending (perhaps 25% of GDP).
How has the surveying profession fared in the midst of this crisis? The short answer is captured in one word, “variable”. Those in cities or towns with a heavy tourism focus have seen a significant downturn in workloads. On the other hand, for the larger companies in cities with a broad cross-section of clients and work streams, the impact has been relatively small. The clients who commission large, multi-year projects in the land development or infrastructure sectors remain optimistic. For the smaller companies who perhaps focus more on smaller surveying projects that have shorter completion time-frames, the impacts have been more significant. They typically don’t have the work backlog or the variety of professional tasks that would enable them to endure a sustained lock-down period. Some have reduced to four-day work weeks. Their future, which tends to reflect the market segment that can react quickly to financial upheaval, is more uncertain.
Having made the above distinction, anecdotal evidence suggests that the profession has been fortunate. Firstly, the country went into the pandemic crisis in the midst of a season of strong economic growth – particularly in the land development sector in which the profession is very active. Thus, although little or no field work was able to be undertaken during Level 4, office work that could be undertaken from individual home “bubbles” allowed professional activity to continue. Indeed, some were very grateful for the opportunity to at least catch up both on work backlogs and on those legacy tasks that seem to be delayed until “there is time”. Productivity, for those who had the work available has perhaps diminished a little. Admittedly, after a total of seven weeks at Levels 4 and 3, the inability to undertake fieldwork was starting to bite all businesses.
Secondly, the country was able to bring the Covid-19 infection rates down quickly – there being very few cases of community transmission. Thus the move back to Level 2, where normal surveying activities could continue (albeit with strong social distancing rules in force), was able to occur reasonably quickly. Necessary field work could again be undertaken.
Thirdly, the professional sector in particular (with some medical and dental specialities excepted), has typically been quite well suited to a “work-fromhome” environment. Staff are usually skilled, can work alone, and have the information technology tools to be able to do so. In all the major cities and towns the internet infrastructure is good and has been able to handle the increased digital communication demands.
Finally, the surveying profession in New Zealand was short-staffed prior to the crisis unfolding – there was more work available than skilled professionals available to meet the demand. Thus, with a degree of good fortune, the short to medium term falloff in demand that is likely to occur with reduced economic activity should not present a major problem to the profession. We are, however, noticing some shuffling of staff from those smaller businesses with a more limited client base, to the larger multi-disciplinary firms with the large, long-life projects.
New Zealand has been fortunate thus far. How it will deal with the reopening of its borders remains unknown. Will we be able to safely create a large Australasian or Pacific travel “bubble”? Will we be able to maintain a Covid-19 free country or could it be that we will eventually suffer due to the lack of herd immunity? Will we see more Covid-19 business impacts in three to four months? Only time will tell. Meanwhile for many in our nation and for the time being it is back to enjoying an afternoon or evening at a packed rugby stadium!
2https://www.rbnz.govt.nz/-/media/ ReserveBank/Files/Publications/ Analytical%20notes/2020/AN2020- 04.pdf?revision=6c59d0c8-a81f- 48bb-931c-0e38209139ba