New thinking

Virtually Covid-free

What’s it like in countries with low Covid-19 rates?

While many of us continue to endure lockdown, curfew and widespread business disruption, people in a select group of countries are enjoying virtually Covid-free living.

Strict controls introduced at the start of the pandemic, mandatory 14-day stay at a managed isolation facility for all returnees and a “tracer app” have virtually eliminated Covid-19 from New Zealand, allowing most restrictions to be lifted.

China has managed to keep Covid-19 cases to minimum in a population of 1.4 billion, thanks to a swift government action where outbreaks occur, tough controls on population movements and extremely high compliance.

Taiwan, Australia and Singapore are also doing well at keeping the virus under control, according to data published by Bloomberg.

“We at this point are back to normal”

In countries that have successfully kept Covid-19 cases low, life has returned to relative normality, even before vaccination programmes have been fully rolled out. Subsequently, business confidence is growing.

Clyde Young, Managing Director of William Buck in New Zealand, says: “We at this point are back to normal except for the requirements to wear masks on public transport. We are still being encouraged to keep track of our movements by using the ‘tracing app’. The only main difference is there is no overseas travel and no overseas tourist travel to New Zealand.”

Best place to be

New Zealand is “the best place to be in the coronavirus era”, according to Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking (published on 25 January 2021). Singapore is in second place, ahead of Australia, Taiwan, China, Norway and Finland. The ranking is based on a combination of factors including virus cases, mortality rates, healthcare, Covid-related restrictions and access to Covid vaccines.

However, the situation is volatile and new strains of the virus, the impact of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and different government responses can have a dramatic impact on a country’s Covid fortunes.

In China for example, a number of new cases were identified in January in several provinces, and the government reacted quickly by reinstating geographically targeted lockdowns, mass-testing and return to online schooling.

“We need to stay agile”

Thierry Labarre, Senior Partner at Mazars in China comments “This is probably the ‘new normal’ for some time to come, and while business can seem surprisingly normal at this point, we need to stay agile to be able to quickly adapt our processes, and especially our visits to client sites, to take into account constantly changing parameters”.

In addition, travel is being strongly discouraged in China during the Chinese New Year period, which is traditionally a very important occasion for family gatherings.

“This would be the second year in a row that staff may not be able to return to visit their parents, and we as a business have a responsibility to help whenever we can,” Thierry adds.

It would seem that even where Covid rates are extremely low and where vaccine programmes are being rolled-out, changes to the way we work will be long-lasting.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, despite disruption to the way businesses operate, the future of work could be more flexible and less polluting.

New ways of working

At William Buck in New Zealand, nearly all staff now work from home for at least part of the week and the company has been able to speed up its paperless office policy.

Clyde explains: “From a firm perspective, during lockdown we all worked from home. This has enabled the firm to permanently offer working from home two days a week to every employee. Another benefit was the move to working paperless. We have been able to launch an initiative known as ‘lighten up’ which is to move everybody to working paperless and to have a clean desktop. We have not moved to hot desking, but have encouraged everybody to keep a clean paperless environment.”

Cloud-based solutions, whether for collaboration such as Teams, or for operations such as Mazars’ newly rolled-out Atlas global audit software, are proving essential to remaining productive and continuing to add value to clients.

Commenting on the impact of this trend in China, Thierry says: “There’s been a huge shift to online consumption and activities, and that has probably been an important factor contributing to China’s impressive growth of over 2% for 2020 despite this challenging situation.”

However, there is still a great deal of caution when it comes to offline business, even in New Zealand. Clyde explains: “We are all still mindful of an outbreak and therefore the government’s messaging is around everybody continuing to do the right thing – wash your hands, keep a track of your movements and wear a mask on public transport. We know if we get an outbreak, even with as few as four cases, we can go into lockdown with less than 48 hours’ notice.”

Long-term resilience

Globally, independent accounting firms within Praxity Global Alliance have responded quickly to help their clients navigate changes in government regulations and access Covid-related support.

In low-Covid countries, the focus has switched from survival to long-term resilience. Even in sectors hit hard by border closures there are signs of hope.

Commenting on the New Zealand situation, Clyde says: “The government offered funding of up to $5,000 to businesses to receive advice and support. During the period from September to November we were busy accessing these grants and providing help for clients.

“However, apart from businesses dependent on tourism, most other businesses have returned to pre-Covid operating levels. New Zealanders are being encouraged to support the various tourism spots, so there is support for the tourism sector but not at the same level as before when we had overseas visitors.”

I originally wrote this article for Praxity Global Alliance, the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting and consulting firms.