Where could a virus-free New Zealand be in five years?

Opinion: Mike Lee wonders if a Covid-19 free country would be an attractive option for the world's technology giants?

It's five years after the historic pandemic of 2020. All over the world, society and economies have been ravaged by the disease.

The elderly and immune-compromised still live in fear because the long-term efficacy of the Covid-vaccine, developed so quickly, remains in question. They live in fear because the vaccine guarantees no protection from new strains of coronavirus or other diseases looming around the corner.

And because health systems and government reserves that were crippled in 2020 can no longer afford to administer anti-viral treatments for free.

Yet New Zealand's economy is tracking upwards; tens of thousands of people made redundant by the fall-out of Covid-19 have found new ways of contributing to society that are better and even more rewarding than they would have thought possible way back in mid-2020 when prospects seemed bleakest.

Bartenders, cooks, waiters, and retail workers retrained as teachers, technicians, builders, and health workers. Entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and tour guides found new opportunities in sustainable industries, film, and conservation.

The ranks of our educational and health system swelled, not only patching the gaps created by years of understaffing but preparing us for future pandemics. We saw what Covid-19 did and we realised, the "national service" of tomorrow should be one designed around a medical, rather than a military, response.

The influx of well-educated and qualified people requiring government income support in the early 2020s were given a hand-up, not only to raise themselves from a bad patch, but also to raise many others with them. Longstanding unemployed persons and disenfranchised youth were encouraged to receive an extra 5-10 per cent increase in their unemployment benefit if they committed to attending and passing additional education programmes designed to lift New Zealand's maths, language, and science literacy.

Highly skilled people made redundant by Covid-19 were given government support in exchange for running employability workshops across all manner of vocational skills ranging from cooking and hospitality, through to sales and communications skills, all funded and assisted by the Government's 2021 Covid-19 reset scheme and revamped social development policies.

Having searched the globe for locations that could guarantee Covid-19-free business disruption plans, Microsoft established its southern hemisphere headquarters near Rotorua using geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, and solar energy to power its massive server farms.

Google, Facebook, Apple, Samsung, and Huawei followed shortly, making Aotearoa an inclusive, diverse and borderless Silicon Valley and Zhongguancun (China's equivalent) of the south in 2022.

Hollywood, Hallyuwood, and Bollywood, appreciating the importance of disruption-free filming, leveraged off existing infrastructure at the Kumeu film studios and Weta digital, and invested in further infrastructure around Auckland and Wellington. Then, keen to access the well-regarded remote scenery of the South Island, further studios were expended near Christchurch and Dunedin.

Realising they could obtain any type of natural or computer-generated landscape, as well as acting talent of every racial profile at 75 per cent of the cost, all the world's major film studios also set up shop in 2023.

Not only did these companies hire local (newly trained Kiwis) but they also pumped millions of dollars in tax back into the economy. Sure, the Government may have incentivised them in the initial years of development, but part of the deal was that they invested in infrastructure, hired local, and what they saved in tax was paid back to the Government later, as a portion of shared revenue generated by their films.

So now in 2025, when they do well, we do well. And when companies do well, they feel no need to look elsewhere.

Finally, in a win-win private-public partnership, the largest film and tech companies formed a consortium and created a massive research fund in 2024. The fund was designed to match Government research investment, dollar-for-dollar, thus, enabling New Zealand to lead the world in tidal energy and aquatic-based biofuels, as well as information and digital technology.

Our reputation for technological leadership, sustainable energy, and safety (both in terms of health and wellbeing); our access to open, clean, and green space; and our well-educated, kind and conscientious population piqued the interest of major manufacturers. As the competitive advantage of cheap labour reduced year by year, manufacturing though automation, using the latest technology and clean energy, became more attractive (and reliable).

So, in 2025, major manufacturers of all manner set up factories across regional New Zealand, but rather than hiring our people for cheap labour, they hired them because we now had the expertise to run and service the machines that we helped design and install.

As one of the most honest and corruption-free countries in the world we could also be trusted to conduct business with professionalism and morality. In 2025, the world still knows: if it's from New Zealand, it can be trusted. The difference is that they now also know we export more than just the best milk powder and fruit.

In 2025, just five short years after the 2020 pandemic, New Zealand has managed to establish its reputation as an inclusive, diverse and kind country. A place free from (but also ready for) global pandemics. A leader in technology and sustainable energy. The Southern hemisphere epicentre for tech, film, and automated manufacturing.

Three thousand years ago, on the exact opposite side of the globe (around 40-degrees latitude north), places now known as Athens, Rome, and Istanbul were the leaders of technology, ethics, and science.

More recently for the past hundred years, in a similar latitude but westward, places like Washington DC and New York were regarded as the commercial, scientific and political epicentre of the world.

But then, in 2020, when Covid-19 turned the world upside down, a small independent country, on the other side of the world, in the middle of the ocean, sitting at 40 degrees south, under a long white cloud wondered "Maybe its time for us to lead?"

Dr Michael S. W. Lee is an Associate Professor in marketing at the University of Auckland Business School. 

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from the New Zealand Herald Covid 19 coronavirus: Michael Lee: Where could a virus-free NZ be in 5 years? 14 May 2020.

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