2 Dec 2020

South suffers the worst of unemployment caused by Covid-19

11:21 am on 2 December 2020

Covid-19 has caused economic pain throughout the country, but nowhere more than the lower South Island where the number of people on the Jobseeker benefit has increased.

Central Queenstown.

Central Queenstown. Photo: 123rf.com

Unsurprisingly tourist mecca Queenstown Lakes has been hardest hit with the number on Jobseeker benefits rising from 102 in February to 592 by October - a spike of 480 percent.

Its neighbours are also doing it tough with Mackenzie, Central Otago and Southland among the 10 most affected districts in the country.

Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult said there was no denying the enormity of the pandemic's effects on the district's economy, but the intervention of the council and the community had cushioned the blow.

"We had a report done by Infometrics early in the piece after lockdown which predicted a much worse situation than has actually occurred," he said.

"That was based on a 'do-nothing' scenario and we certainly haven't done nothing. But if you come back to the fact that international tourism was worth $1.9 billion to our small part of the world - that's gone and it's going to be some time before it comes back, so things are pretty tough."

There was also hope on the horizon for some of the community's hardest hit residents, he said.

Changes to the Ministry of Social Development's work visa rules for migrant workers in the district meant about 1000 migrant workers - some of whom had been in New Zealand for a decade or longer - who had been surviving on government support for months, could now return to work, Boult said.

"The logic of it is rather than government having to support them this allows them to take jobs that are available that Kiwis aren't available for or haven't taken up and earn an income. The feedback I get from all of these people is they'd much prefer to be working than on a benefit of some description," he said.

But there was no doubting Queenstown's almost singular focus on tourism exacerbated the problem for the resort.

Simon Telfer, chair of the district's regenerative recovery group, said the sector was already causing headaches in the district before the pandemic.

"You look at Wānaka Airport and Queenstown Airport [and] their challenges. You look at wastewater and three waters infrastructure. You look at transport and transport infrastructure, impact on the environment, impact on the cohesion of the community - those were conversations that were all being had pre-Covid and Covid has certainly brought them to light," Telfer said.

"We have a chance ... to reset. But you have to have discipline around that because it's very easy to go back to what made the district money historically and fall into that trap."

That was essentially the regenerative recovery group's mandate and opportunities for diversifying the district's economy was a top priority to protect future economic fallout.

Queenstown Lakes had the resources, manpower and capability to be at the forefront of IT and sustainable agriculture in New Zealand, Telfer said.

The neighbouring Central Otago district was also doing it tough.

It was the third most affected district in the country with Jobseekers up 98 percent since February.

Mayor Tim Cadogan said he believed that was due to proximity to Queenstown Lakes.

The district's horticulture sector was crying out for workers and, though many unemployed would take up those jobs when they became available, it was not as easy as some suggest.

"I totally understand why people go 'Well, why don't the ones on the dole just go from A to B and get stuck in'," he said.

"But on the other hand, and I've been in this situation - when I first came to Central Otago I was on the DPB with a one-year-old and a two-year-old - you don't have the money to put a tank of gas in the car and pack up a chilly bin and get yourself here and find somewhere to live. It's a hell of a gamble."

He believed last week's incentives announced by the government of a $200 per week accommodation assistance and a bonus for those remaining for six weeks, would provide encouragement for some to take the gamble.

"Those extra 180 people [on Jobseekers in Central Otago since February] were people who were working before Covid hit and [it] changed everything for them. So I would anticipate that those people - many of them in the lower south - who are looking for work will come here over summer. They're not here yet because the peak of the season hasn't really hit. I think a lot of them will turn up but I also know from experience that it's not that easy when you're just hanging on to suddenly shift and make things happen. I hope that they can and I hope the government is encouraging them to do so," Cadogan said.

Across the lower south many were talking of a two-paced recovery with the worst effects of the pandemic missing most, but those who were struggling to make ends meet beforehand are now in a perilous state. And for some of the community's most vulnerable, the effects had not been all economic.

Lilia Greaves, a prominent member of South Canterbury's Filipino community, said she knew of migrant workers who now called New Zealand home, who had to grieve loved ones from thousands of kilometres away due to border restrictions.

"Quite a few of them either the father or the mother died and they can't really go home, that is the hardest thing for them," she said.

Others had children still back in the Philippines who they had not seen since the borders closed.

Everyone was waiting for some normalcy to return and borders to reopen, she said.

The country's six most affected districts were all in the South Island, but the North Island's most affected district, Thames-Coromandel, had experienced a 63 percent rise in Jobseekers.

Whitianga Social Services manager Sheryll FitzPatrick said the pandemic's effects had been far reaching in the community.

"Community and iwi groups are supporting people with food and food parcels, free counselling for those under mental and emotional stress, we've noticed an increase across the whole of the Waikato ... and the social work team have also said that there's been an increase in the requests for relationship counselling - which is really positive - but it means a lot of relationships are under stress as well," FitzPatrick said.

There had also been a notable increase in demand for budgeting services as well as many households confronted reduced incomes.

She believed simple solutions, such as a local drivers licence testing centre so young people could get their licence to get themselves to any available work, would help the community.

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