Pandemic looms large over Warwick agricultural industry


THE outbreak of COVID-19 is predicted to cripple the Australian economy as delayed shipments, decreased demand and a largely physical workforce leave agricultural towns, such as Warwick, in an increasingly vulnerable position.

Local meat export giant John Dee is already running into a number of logistical challenges, according to company director Bob Hart.

"We're very concerned about this, the same as everybody else," Mr Hart said.

"We're trying to make decisions on the fly, while doing our utmost to keep operational."

The latest report by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences said COVID-19 presented a significant short-term risk to the export market, as the Chinese demand for produce declines.

The disruption to beef exports began earlier this year when people in China were encouraged to self-isolate for weeks on end, according to the report.

Asia makes up 30 per cent of John Dee's export market and a number of shipments faced delays or forced redirection as a result of the virus.

"We have encountered container issues, with empty containers coming back," Mr Hart said.

"Transportation systems have been affected in places like China where people are in lockdown.

"When people are stuck at home, their transportation systems don't work, that affects the function of the shipment lines.

"That follows on through to the wharves here and the trucking systems."

The impact so far, however, has been minimal.

"Up until now we've worked out way through it - We have really good people here who have been working hard to keep the material operational," Mr Hart said.

Logistics employees must monitor the transportation systems constantly, as their rules and availabilities change daily.

"It's the same as the airlines," Mr Hart said.

"They change to meet the requirements of the market."

The greater challenge for the company would be a compromised workforce, as a large percentage of its 600 employees are unable to work from home in the event of sickness or forced quarantine.

"It's the first time we've faced a pandemic that's been so well recorded," Mr Hart said.

"It could affect attendance of personnel due to sickness and we're thinking of contingency measures every moment, as we receive new information."

Mr Hart said the company does not have any plans to slow production at this time.

According to new calculations by the Australian Treasury, however, it is unlikely the Warwick exporter will remain unscathed.

The spread of the coronavirus is predicted to wipe more than $34 billion from the national economy over the course of the year.

In order to combat the threat of recession, the Federal Government announced it would inject millions of dollars into regional communities and businesses as part of a new stimulus package.

Available from March 31, pensioners, veterans, and other welfare recipients will receive one-off cash payments of $750, along with grants of between $2000 and $25,000 given to small and medium businesses. These cash payments form the largest part of the stimulus package, and will likely ensure thousands of businesses across the Southern Downs region can keep their doors open and retain a full staff.

For Mark Favero, owner of popular Warwick businesses Pickle & Must Delicatessen and Belle Vue Cafe, the government hand-out will mean he can offer his casual staff enough hours to make a living, as well as extra training and new equipment.

"The payment will be fantastic - we have taken advantage of others in the past, and you try to pass it through the business to those employees who keep it running, rather than put it in your own pocket," Mr Favero said.

As CEO of the Warwick Credit Union, Lewis von Stieglitz believes the stimulus package will return economic security to much of the Southern Downs region, especially when most local businesses and communities are still recovering from prolonged seasons of bushfires and drought.

"I think it's a smart way to head off the recession that we might otherwise get into," Mr von Stieglitz said.