Heather du Plessis-Allan: Nothing has turned out as bad as predicted


If there’s a positive lesson from this year, it’s that nothing has turned out as bad as predicted.

Take the quarterly GDP figures out this week. They were nowhere near as bad as expected.

The Reserve Bank predicted an economic contraction in the September quarter of 7 per cent. The Treasury picked a drop of 6 per cent only a day before the real figure was released.

That figure ended up being 3.7 per cent.

That’s still awful. It’s the second-worst economic contraction the country’s experienced since records began 35 years ago. It represents a lot of closing businesses, extra debt taken on and individual heartbreaks. But it’s still a lot less of that than we were expecting.

Then take the grim health forecasts. Only 12 weeks ago Covid modeller Shaun Hendy predicted 7000 deaths a year if we hit an 80 per cent vaccination rate. Even if we hit 90 per cent – which is where we are now – he forecast 1557 deaths.

We’ve seen nowhere near that level of carnage. We’ve only recorded around 50 deaths.

Again, that’s still sad. Every death represents a loss to a family, but it’s nowhere near the catastrophising we were sold.

Partly, that’s because the gloomy predictions fail to account for the human ability to adapt and be brilliant.

The GDP numbers weren’t as bad as forecast because business owners learned how to handle lockdowns. They’d been through the first 2020 lockdown and second 2020 lockdown and the two February lockdowns. So when the big Auckland lockdown struck they took themselves online, set up click and collect, fired up the Zoom and started couriering again.

The transport sector, for example, took a quarterly knock of 3.3 per cent in the first half of this year’s Auckland lockdown. But back in that first lockdown of 2020, the knock to the sector was 27 per cent. That’s evidence of innovation and resilience.

Hendy’s model was wrong because the vaccine was better than his headline numbers accounted for. He assumed the vaccine had medium efficacy. But actually, Pfizer’s brilliant employees managed to make something with high efficacy. And then Kiwis did their bit by getting jabbed at levels we had hoped for but not really believed possible.

But there is one thing that was actually worse than anyone could’ve predicted, and that was the uncertainty.

Humans aren’t good with uncertainty. We’re better off knowing something bad is definitely going to happen than suspecting it might.

Research published a few years ago found that people who were told they had a 50 per cent chance of getting an electric shock were more stressed and anxious than people told they were definitely getting an electric shock.

That is why these last two years have been hard – because we really had no idea what to expect next or how bad it could be. Omicron is a case in point. It’s created a panic disproportionate to its deadliness. As far as we know, the UK has only recorded one Omicron death so far, despite tens of thousands of cases.

I suspect next year is going to be just as uncertain as the last two years.

We’ll get our first winter wave of Covid and winter is when respiratory diseases are at their worst. The PM could u-turn on her commitment to reopen the borders to the world and leave more expats stranded and businesses here strapped for staff. We can’t be sure that 5.1 per cent annual inflation is just a temporary blip or something more prolonged and problematic.

The coming year might yet throw a lot at us. But there are two things we can be sure of as we recharge ourselves this summer before going in for round three of the pandemic. The first is that we humans are brilliant and resilient, and we can and will make it through. This second is that there’s a good chance that whatever horror show they predict won’t be nearly as bad as they say.

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