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Covid: The Obstacle is the Path

Covid: The Obstacle is the Path

Just as mainland Australia was impacted by Covid 19, the virus that emerged in the beginning of 2020, so too was Norfolk Island. With an industry and economy totally reliant on tourism the impacts were immediate and devastating. The island effectively closed its doors to the mainland in March 2020 and they were not to reopen for another seven months.

The island had felt recessions before. In 2009/10 the full devastating effects of the Global Financial Crisis hit the island which effectively halved tourism and saw many people leave the island to seek employment elsewhere, chiefly the Australian mainland. However, there were distinct differences.

Tourism never ceased completely. There were always tourists on the island even though the numbers had diminished over time but this took many months to become evident. In contrast, shockingly the Covid shutdown was immediate and complete (in fact a plane had to be turned around mid flight on 20 March 2020). No tourism at all was permitted. Locals still had two flights a week to access medical services and essential workers but that was all. Even that was an incredible luxury and if not for the government underwriting the airline it would have been impossible.

The other difference this time was that the island had the backing and full financial support of the Australian Government. Jobkeeper and Jobseeker was made available to business and individuals providing a safety net that stopped many from leaving the island or shutting their doors permanently which would have devastated the island and stalled the recovery for years. Government grants in the millions were awarded. This resulted in local sporting clubs building new infrastructure, Council buildings being revamped, footpaths and driveways installed, sporting facilities upgraded and much more. All of the money was earned and circulated by trades people and hardware businesses on Island effectively boosting the local economy through purchasing power and spending.

Where would the island have been without this support? An already insolvent Norfolk island government in 2010 tried to stimulate the economy in any way it could to disastrous effect. So many people had left the island that there were concerns that it may not be an ongoing concern at all. It was a completely depressing and distressing time for everyone with no way out. The culmination of protectionist fiscal policy over many years and then the GFC was just too much to bear and the island had no choice but to start the roadmap process out of this disaster zone. Many have said that it was the GFC alone that caused this disaster but that is to ignore the facts. Many reports and government bodies were warning of a complete economic recession since the early 2000’s due to the anti-competition, anti-immigration and anti-entrepreneurial policies that were put into place by the local government to protect the islanders from external influences.

The situation that Covid caused in 2020 should have been much worse. But Norfolk Islanders, under the protection of the federal government, were not depressed (generally speaking) or even fearful. In fact the pervading attitude was one of optimism and delight that an extended holiday feeling. Many on the islanders had gainful employment and openly declared that they would have been delighted if the island never opened up, somehow imagining that the money flowing in would never turn off. Whether or not this was the case the feeling was of a cushioned fall rather than a thud. That is not to say that tourism businesses didn’t suffer. They did, and hard, but when the recovery came it was swift and many were heard to say that they wouldn’t have minded being closed a bit longer, albeit through gritted smiles.

The recovery phase started from October 2020 with a strong interest and reinvigorated travellers flocking to the island. It was only when NSW/VIC state closures in June 2021 that the Island went back to a de javue of 2020 for a while.

Then in August 2021 the Administrator announced Covid recovery grants of up to fifteen thousand dollars for businesses who had been adversely affected by the never ending lockdowns and, after applications were made, payment was swift. A further three thousand dollars a month was available for businesses to help during the down time.

The airline situation on the island in 2010 also provides a stark contrast with operations in 2020. Air Nauru had taken over operations from Geoffrey Edelston’s OzJet by this time and the scheduling was disrupted quite a bit. Aside from scheduling issues through GFC downturns the airline was running older planes that experienced mechanical delays and cancellations. After OZjet the islanders were used to this sort of thing and disruptions between Australian mainland and Norfolk Island just became a way of life.

However, In 2020/21 when it became clear that Air New Zealand couldn’t sustain their excellent service to the island due to travel restrictions internationally with New Zealand (who maintained 2 flights a week all through 2020) the government through the island Administrator was able to secure QANTAS for the route with little to no disruption to the schedule. This was an absolute boon to the island providing a secure, safe link to the mainland to create a solid tourism recovery. There was hardly any anxiety from the residents who were in a much better head space than 2010.

Things during Covid were so good on Norfolk Island that many island residents moved back to the island to feel safe from the outside world. The difference between isolationism and embracing our territory of Australia status to our advantage is the difference between failing and thriving.

Coming out of Covid we on the island find ourselves in a positive upswing. Infrastructure projects are being finalised and continuing into the future and there is a real sense of optimism as far as individual security and safety. There are some issues of concern for some including the increased costs of living (mainly rent and real estate related) and freight (which has always been an issue) but many islanders feel that these things can be approached with a renewed sense of vigour knowing that the next fall might not be so far.

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