02/09/2020 - 14:00

Facing a COVID crossroad

02/09/2020 - 14:00


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As we bask in splendid isolation there’s an increasing risk the world will leave us behind.

Facing a COVID crossroad
WA’s open spaces and isolation are attractive to many outside the state, particularly as the pandemic continues to flare up elsewhere. Photo: Atisha Turnock

It is dangerous political ground to suggest we should open our borders, as the federal government, state Liberals, and probably even politician/businessman Clive Palmer have learned.

Of course I am not a politician, and as much as I have been pleased with the result of the current restrictions, I am increasingly wondering what a broadly acceptable open border will look like.

I don’t believe it is a catastrophe for Western Australia to have the borders shut for the time being.

Plenty of businesses can operate without travel, and the tourism sector within the state may actually be a net winner, even if many operators struggle.

But I also feel the current state of play is unsustainable. There are many people who have strong reasons to come here, either for work, family, or other special reasons, and we are blocking them in a way that seems unfair.

There is a great deal of infrastructure that will take a long time to recover (if at all) if we don’t try to open up, little by little. Airports, airlines, hotels, universities and (once the stimulus is expended) housing are all struggling without a flow of new arrivals.

Initially that dollar value is lost in the short term, but ultimately we are shunning the longer-term opportunities created by the brains and capital of genuine migrants and a returning diaspora.

We are missing a golden opportunity that has been created by some very good decision making at state government level and a great deal of luck.

Everything that previously worked against WA has now turned in our favour. We are a place you can live freely (barring travel beyond our border) while the rest of the world hides behind lockdowns or plays whack-a-mole with outbreaks.

Even in places where the pandemic’s worst has been experienced, many people have learned what we already knew: the value of open space and splendid isolation.

This is a great moment to capitalise on. Never has it been so easy to sell Perth and the great state of WA.

Not only can we offer students a safe place to study, we choose the best of them and take our pick of academic leaders to teach them.

We can get our airports properly ticking over and open the door to airlines that are desperate for business, with the potential for new routes that might create lasting links beyond those that existed pre-pandemic.

We could underwrite a big jump in employment by ensuring our hotels operate at capacity.

Our Data & Insights shows major accommodation providers have at least 17,000 rooms here, mainly in Perth, the state’s gateway.

That suggests to me at least 20,000 people could be accommodated in quarantine at any one time. A great deal more could be quarantined if private housing was an option – such as it was for businessman Kerry Stokes – with Airbnb-style landlords paid well to make sure their charges are looked after and don’t leave the grounds.

Arguably, some specialist tourism operators could operate as mini-quarantine stations, allowing tourists to enjoy some of our wonderful attractions on land and sea in isolation, without mingling with locals other than those serving them.

Is there a risk in what I suggest?

Of course there is. But there again lies the opportunity: both to take advantage of others’ craving for our safe space, and to show we can lead the world with innovative practices that manage quarantine in a healthy, comfortable and even profitable way.

My mind keeps getting drawn to recently listed Perth business InteliCare, which commercialised a predictive analytics hardware and software system for use in the aged care and health industries.

This is just one example of technology and thinking that could help armour-plate our aged care sector and reduce the risk of my strategy in this vulnerable area.

But it also could be put to the test in quarantine situations to help ensure people were staying where they ought.

I am worried we will look back at this time and realise we missed our chance to show how forward thinking we really are.


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