Covid-19: why I’ve turned to New Zealand’s rural communities for a lesson in coping with adversity

As the Covid-19 crisis continues to unfold, The Regions founders, Ben and Patricia De’Ath, reflect on the learnings they have received from New Zealand’s dairy sector, and how, in months to come, we can prepare for the long trek back to normal.

My wife and I are in our mid 30s with two boys and a girl due in a couple of weeks. Our business employs 42 staff and has a few thousand clients across New Zealand.

We help the dairy sector and its rural communities fill a generational staffing and human capacity gap, a need which came about as a result of our clean, green meat and milk being so popular around the globe. That need saw our dairy industry double in size over a few short years during the late 90s.

We have succeeded by focusing on long term success for employers in the diary sector and the rural communities we place people into. Neither my wife nor I are dairy farmers, but our business methods and the robust way we do things has seen us welcomed by New Zealand’s farming sector.

Having a bit of vision, and sticking things out for the long haul, is one way to describe how we have learned from the farming sector and applied this in our own business. The same can be said for the current Covid-19 situation.

What might happen with Covid-19?

Like most of New Zealand we have been watching the Covid-19 situation unfold internationally over the past few months and have seen it creep into the national psyche with New Zealand’s first case confirmed in February 2020.

This past week things have really ramped up and we have been asked by staff and clients, “what might happen?” Each time I have cringed privately thinking, “sh*t, how are we meant to know?”

There is already a lot of information out there to digest about what Covid-19 is, what it does, and how long it lasts.

As a nation we have followed guidelines on washing hands and lowering the risk of exposure sooner than other nations. We would appear to be in a better spot than almost any other first world country at mitigating its risks. It would also appear New Zealand is not yet at the peak of the outbreak. It seems likely that our schools, government departments, businesses and non-essential shops are likely to close for a period. Already public gatherings and events involving 500 people have been affected and this number seems likely to grow in the coming weeks.

From what I have consumed, I have reached the tentative conclusion that 80% of those who contract the virus experience very mild symptoms, and in some cases the effects are hardly noticeable. For the remaining 20% it ranges from noticeable and bothersome, to very serious. Believing what I have read, I can conclude this is an incredibly contagious virus that anyone getting near a carrier seems likely to contract it.

Long trek back to normal

From this research, I would suggest that we are at least three months from being on the ‘other side’ of the virus, and its ravaging effects. I estimate that it will be in the middle of our winter perhaps as long as August – when the cows on our farms are calving – that life in New Zealand begins the long trek back towards normal.

A few months in the scheme of our lives is a small period of time and, while 2020 will be remembered across the globe as the Covid-19 year, it is important we take it in context. We will come out the other side.

Perhaps, most of all, we need to understand that this is a short-lived blip on the radar, something we will be able to tell our kids about – my wife is already planning on buying the newspaper from the day our daughter is born.

This is, however, nothing to panic over. We have a responsive and creative government and, we have as good of a plan as we could hope for. We will get through this.

A lesson from New Zealand’s farmers

For any Kiwis facing the perceived vulnerability of their cruisy urban lifestyle, I present to you, the New Zealand farming sector. Robust, resilient and screaming out for staff, New Zealand’s farming sector offers opportunity – jobs come with a house too, just in case any of you have been having any issues with that before the virus took your attention.

During the past eight years we have come to know the farmers we service on a deep and personal level. We have seen them produce milk at a financial loss, navigate droughts, and deal with another virus for stock. We have watched as they have managed an increasingly uninformed and critical public perception of what dairy farming does to the land and their animals, or Immigration departments suggesting that their staff are low skilled!

Which brings me to my next prediction – the value of farming as a viable profession might not be so bad after all.

As hospitality tourism and likely construction, falter as a result of a few months with diminished income, look to lessons that can be learned from the New Zealand farmer. Any small business owners going through tough times should ask their nearest cockies for some tips. After all, it was they who ran at a loss for two straight seasons a few years back.

It is rather easy to predict as we exit the effects of the virus, farming will be restored to its appreciated and rightful place as a vigorous industry producing for the nation and the globe, literally rain hail or shine.

Looking to the future

As other industries and business operators come out of the dust dazed, and in some cases insolvent, farming, the agriculture sector and its communities will be there to lend New Zealand a hand. As New Zealand experiences the significant disruption of Covid-19 and, mark my words we have yet to see the worst of it, it will be our country’s farms, and farmers, who have kept things ticking along. Milk will continue to be produced for that big hungry world out there, in the same steady, constant way farming has always been.

We are in for some tough times ahead, but these will pass. Let’s take special care of our fragile and elderly in this immediate period. Let’s exercise kindness, take responsibility for our actions, consider others, and learn from those around us.

The information on Covid-19 and the unfolding situation we can anticipate is right there in front of us. We just must look hard, think deep and push on – just like our farmers do.

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