Sunday, 05 April 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Coronavirus uncertainty impacts local economy

Keep calm and carry on is the clear message to local communities as some Coromandel schools, businesses and travellers are forced to grapple with the restrictions and uncertainty arising from the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak.

Evakona Education - the English language school which employs 30 people at campuses in Whitianga and Thames - has been hit hard by the global outbreak with a string of group bookings for short-term stays cancelled in recent weeks.

Owner and principal, Eriko McLean, said it is a hugely stressful time for staff as it is impossible to predict what was going to happen. “We just have to deal with the situation day by day and make the best decisions we can at the time,” she said.

Eriko said while the impact on the school is significant, her first priority was ensuring the health of current and arriving students, their homestay families and the wider community. Evakona staff are following all the advice and recommendations from the World Health Organisation, the Ministry of Health and the Tokyo Metropolitan Infectious Disease Surveillance Centre, as most of their students come from Japan.

“Evakona Education currently has 15 students who have been in Whitianga for an extended period of time, one to six months,” Eriko said. The students are mostly Japanese but also include Swiss, Spanish and Chinese. In early February, the school had one Chinese student who went through the process of self-isolation and is fully healthy. A further 30 to 40 Japanese students will arrive in Whitianga within the next month. While travellers from Japan are not required under New Zealand’s travel rules to self-isolate, the school said there were strong procedures in place to ensure no students came here if they were unwell.

“Japan has shut down their schools and other public places for a month in order to contain the spread of Covid-19,” Eriko said. “This means that the Evakona students are in effect self-isolating before they come to New Zealand. We are also requiring all students to take their temperature daily for an extended period before coming and none will be travelling if they show any symptoms of any kind of illness.”

Most of the students coming to Whitianga are aged 14 to 15 and will be in the Mercury Bay area for 12 months. While their pastoral care programme means Evakona already monitors students’ health and wellbeing, extra information has been provided to staff and homestay families. “Homestays and teachers know to look for symptoms of Covid-19, which include fever, cough and shortness of breath,” Eriko said. The school and homestays are following the same advice that has been issued to all members of the public - regular handwashing with soap and water for 20 seconds, avoiding contact with eyes, nose and mouth, and staying home when sick.

The vast majority of homestay families are happy to continue accommodating students. “Homestays are a huge part of what we do, we absolutely rely on them,” Evakona’s homestay coordinator, Lisl Wollheim Jones, said. “Many of them have been working with us for several years and their welfare is a huge priority. We have had two families decide that they would rather not host under the circumstances and that’s completely fine, we respect their decision.”

Eriko said the school is more than happy to talk to anyone from the community who has specific questions or concerns. “We really hope that people don’t jump to incorrect conclusions because of where these young people come from,” she said. “There will be many other visitors coming through our area on holiday and business who may not have been through the monitoring procedures that our students have. I would appeal to people to please call us if they are worried and remember that these are just kids who are coming to New Zealand as part of their education.”

Mercury Bay Area School principal, John Wright, said while MBAS was also following recommended procedures, their international student programme was likely to be impacted.

“At this stage we have had no information of direct concern to our kura, but we are mindful,” he said. “No doubt there will be an impact on international students coming to our school from Europe and Japan, but at this stage we do not have any who have withdrawn. I am sure, looking forward, it’s entirely feasible we will have some withdrawals. The net impact on us will not only be these young people and our own students missing out on experiences and developing relationships, but also financial.”

Looking ahead, Mr Wright said he expected 2021 would be a relatively quiet year in terms of MBAS’s international programme. No overseas trips involving students from the school would be taking place in the short to medium term.

Additional soap dispensers are also being installed within the school to promote more handwashing.

Meanwhile, You Travel Whitianga has written to clients acknowledging that some may feel it too risky to travel right now and encouraging them to gather the facts to make the correct decision for them, their family and friends. The communication contains links to the latest travel safety advice as well the list of countries affected by the coronavirus which staff are also working through with those who need or want to travel. Most travel insurance policies purchased after 30 January will not cover anything related to Covid-19 from either a health or a travel disruption perspective as it regarded as a “known event.”

While Destination Coromandel would not specifically comment on the potential impact of the outbreak on the Coromandel’s tourism sector - which accounts for 17 percent of local employment - general manager, Hadley Dryden, said  the organisation is currently running a campaign promoting shoulder season travel to domestic visitors. “This shoulder season campaign is part of our planned domestic activity,” he said. “In 2019, the domestic travel market was worth $387m to the Coromandel region.”

Infometrics senior economist, Brad Olsen, said while just 2.1 per cent of total international spending on the Coromandel comes from Chinese tourists, it’s expected that international tourism numbers will drop off generally due to the outbreak. Currently there is a ban on all non-resident travellers from China entering New Zealand.

“While there is still a significant risk to the Coromandel’s international tourism market, the local effect could be much less than for other parts of the country,” Mr Olsen said. “This demonstrates the importance of attracting and retaining domestic travellers to the Coromandel, from the drive markets such as Auckland and Hamilton, for example.”

Reduced demand for dairy, meat and seafood is also likely to impact local producers. Aquaculture, the Peninsula’s second-largest primary industry at 19 per cent of regional exports, has a strong exposure to China where 40 per cent of New Zealand’s seafood exports were sent last year. “Local horticulture and fruit-growing businesses, accounting for 17 per cent of [the Coromandel Peninsula’s] total exports, are likely to face a similar hit, considering 21 per cent of New Zealand’s horticulture exports were sent to China last year,” Mr Olsen said.

“We are hoping the shock from Coronavirus will be short and sharp, but the longer the issue continues, the bigger the impact will be.”

TCDC’s communications and economic development group manager, Laurna White, said, “Council is working with the National Emergency Management Agency and the Waikato District Health Board on a Covid-19 response plan for the Coromandel, should we need to activate.”

At the end of last week, there were five confirmed cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, all in Auckland, with the risk of a community outbreak still assessed as low.

The Ministry of Health advises anyone experiencing coronavirus symptoms who has recently been to mainland China, Iran, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Singapore or Thailand, or who has had close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19, to phone Healthline on 0800 358 5453 or their doctor immediately. Please do not turn up in person at your GP’s surgery.

The staff from English language school, Evakona Education, say the health of their students and homestay families, and the wider community is their top priority in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.Back, from the left - Ako Carse, Rachael Mayne, Lisl Wollheim Jones and Theresa Thompson. Front - Eriko McLean and John Saunders.

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