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Source: Greenpeace New Zealand

I’ve never felt more lucky to live in New Zealand.

In the last few weeks, we’ve done something remarkable. We’ve come together – all of us – to protect our most vulnerable people. We’ve temporarily paused our day-to-day lives to stop the spread of a highly-contagious coronavirus that can so quickly become deadly when healthcare services are overwhelmed. We’ve done what people never thought was possible – stop everything.

As I look around the rest of the world, to my birth country Sweden, or to the US where I grew up, and the UK where I studied, I feel relieved to be living in Aotearoa. So far, our leaders have been calm and compassionate but decisive. We have a good chance to avoid the worst.

The Government has made the difficult choice to put business-as-usual on hold to protect our people and to give healthcare workers a chance. To smooth the inevitable economic shock of this decision, they’re now drawing up plans to pump billions of relief dollars into the economy. How these funds are spent will shape our society for decades, if not generations, to come.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine and rebuild a more caring and resilient Aotearoa New Zealand. Amid the crisis, a small window has cracked open. It’s one of those rare ‘nothing to lose’ moments, and it could change everything.

As reports roll in of cleaner canals in Venice, blue skies in formerly pollution-stricken Chinese cities and plunging carbon emissions linked to grounded flights, Covid-19 is giving us a glimpse of a world with less environmental harm. It’s shown us that what we’ve been told our entire lives – that it’s not possible to pause the structures and systems around us to deal with existential threats – is not true. But it’s also revealing the crisis of inequality that currently exists both within and between countries. Poor access to health services, insecure employment and lack of affordable housing are exposing millions of already-marginalised people to even greater harm.

This crisis is giving us a peek into a cleaner world, whilst reminding us of the inhumane consequences when public services and safety nets are missing. These two realisations hand-in-hand are powerful. And as the Government prepares a series of economic recovery packages, we have the chance to come out of this crisis much better off than we went in. 

The immediate priority is to provide relief to our most vulnerable communities – those who face unemployment, people in poverty, the homeless, people with disabilities, and people in abusive homes to mention a few.

The Covid-19 pandemic is unfolding so quickly that there’s a high risk that existing inequalities and injustices will simply be reinforced. We must act intentionally to prevent this by amplifying the voices of marginalised groups as they call for inclusive and targeted Government responses.

Looking longer-term, we must take this chance to transform our society for the better. By thoughtfully targeting the economic recovery package, we can lift living standards for New Zealanders, create thousands of good green jobs, and accelerate a just transition away from fossil fuels, industrial farming and fishing, and other polluting industries.

There are some immediate “shovel-ready” projects that could roll out as soon as the lockdown lifts: a nationwide programme to warm up New Zealand’s 600,000 under-insulated homes; fencing and planting New Zealand’s on-farm waterways; and introducing a Universal Basic Income.

The longer-term pathway to recovery includes tens of thousands of good green jobs, designing and delivering the clean infrastructure we need to live well and get around. This should come from unprecedented investment in public transport, cycling and rail infrastructure; billions in finance for household and community-level solar and wind projects; a billion-dollar regenerative farming fund to support farmers to transition to better agriculture; a “conservation corps” of people eradicating pests, planting native trees and restoring critical habitats; and the construction of tens of thousands of new, affordable homes that meet the highest energy-efficiency standards.

In the short-term, the Government will be looking to support some of New Zealand’s major industries. As citizens, we need to push the Government to make sure business bailouts come with conditions attached. Bailouts must require business practice to align with biodiversity and climate goals; they must be conditional on companies not giving big payouts to shareholders and CEOs; and they should come in the form of a loan rather than a gift.

The mistakes of the 2008 global financial crisis – where Government funds flowed disproportionately to polluting industries and to society’s most wealthy must not be repeated. Right now we have a chance to add value to, rather than undermine, the ecological and social support systems that we rely on to be safe and to thrive, particularly in times of crisis. 

Given that today’s young people will need to deal with the debt from our economic response to Covid-19, our Government should be thinking hard about how to deploy their economic stimulus measures in ways that create a more secure and resilient future for our children. 

The window has cracked open. Let’s let the light in, because if we do, we could change everything.

We must demand a Green Covid Response.