Don’t make Kiwis pay for quarantine

Opinion: Kiwis returning home should not be expected to pay for their own quarantine. It is part of the pact between citizens and government, writes Ananish Chaudhuri.

Enforce quarantine, or trust people to self-isolate? Photo: iStock

Citizens have the right to return to their homeland without having to pay for the privilege. Should they have returned home before the border closed? Maybe or maybe not. The Government never told them that if they did not return home by a certain date, they should be expecting to pay a substantial amount.

Does it matter that some of those trying to return home now, left to find their fortunes overseas and that they (possibly) do not pay taxes in New Zealand? Or that if these returning travellers do not pay then the cost will have to be borne by the rest of us by a potential increase in our taxes?

No and no.

As tax payers we routinely cover activities that we ourselves do not do. Those of us who lead a healthier lifestyle subsidise those who lead unhealthy lives and place greater demand on our health systems. This, again, is part and parcel of the social contract. What goes around comes around. Hopefully, what I pay in taxes to help someone else comes back to me in another way. There is no way to target individuals and make them pay for their unique activities. This argument applies to non-resident Kiwis as well.

Furthermore, the idea of quarantine itself is based on faulty premises.

First, New Zealand is a high-trust society. It would be fine to request people to self-isolate. This is what was happening before the lockdown. I returned home from an overseas engagement. I was asked to self-isolate and did so dutifully. I received calls from Healthline to check how it was going and before I was about to exit self-isolation. Currently available evidence suggests that New Zealand was actually doing fine in Level 2 and that the numbers of daily cases were actually declining (yes declining!) prior to the implementation of the lock down.

Is it better or cheaper to distrust everyone and put everyone in quarantine? Or is it more efficient to ask people to self-isolate assuming most will do so?

Second, when this whole thing started, it was all about flattening the curve and reducing pressure on the public health. But, somewhere along the line the premise morphed into total elimination.

As is becoming clear now, elimination is not and never was a realistic goal.

Many nations around the world have begun to figure out that we will need to learn to co-exist with Covid-19 and they are taking appropriate steps to open up their borders. This includes hard-hit Western European nations.

But, wouldn’t people abuse this trust if we leave it to them? Yes, some would but much research suggests that the majority will not. Kiwis have proved over and over again that when requested they are very good at abiding by cooperative norms.

For instance, currently Watercare is asking Aucklanders to voluntarily reduce water usage. Our household has made changes to reduce our consumption as I am sure others have. I am willing to bet that in a few months’ time we will find that overall water consumption in Auckland will decrease.

This is not the only instance. I remember that back in the autumn of 2003, New Zealand faced an acute shortage of power. Faced with this crisis, the Government made a public appeal to households and businesses to reduce their power consumption as much as possible. The crisis was averted. People voluntarily reduced consumption. Restaurants in Auckland turned off their lights and started serving dinners by candle-light. Some restaurants reported that this made the dinners a much more intimate and romantic affair and seemed to have added to the diners’ enjoyment.

But even otherwise, let us assume that some people will violate the terms of their lockdown. Think about this. Is it better or cheaper to distrust everyone and put everyone in quarantine? Or is it more efficient to ask people to self-isolate assuming most will do so? Then deal with the violators via contact tracing and testing as needed. Which one do you think is the easier, cheaper and more efficient way of going about this?

I guess the answer depends on how trustworthy you think Kiwis are. I would be comfortable following this strategy in the knowledge that the vast majority of Kiwis, when asked to pull together for the common good, will willingly do so.

Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experimental Economics at the Business School.

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

Used with permission from Newsroom Don’t make Kiwis pay for quarantine 29 June 2020.

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