Social cohesion threatened in post-Covid-19 world

Top social scientists say New Zealand’s strong national unity during lockdown – reflected in a proliferation of teddy bears in windows and Anzac Day poppies on front lawns – is now under threat as grim new economic realities and prolonged disruption in personal lives hit home for many.

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Experts from Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland say the level of community compliance and sense of collective purpose in fighting the threat of Covid-19 has rarely been seen in this country outside of wartime.

Koi Tū director Sir Peter Gluckman says the high level of trust in government seen so far will likely begin to waver as the country transitions out of the acute phase and as the implications of a prolonged recession become apparent.

A new discussion paper He Oranga Hou: Social cohesion in a post-COVID world, outlines the difficulty that New Zealand could soon face in maintaining this trust and unity as restrictions lift, and points to the need to promote social cohesion.

The discussion paper highlights the potential fallout for society as job losses put financial pressure on communities, and makes some key recommendations.

“Already, we’re seeing a rise in tension between conflicting economic and health interests. Sectors are starting to compete for attention. Some are in hurry to return to a pre-Covid life; others see the opportunity for a major reset,” Sir Peter says.

“Many lives have been fundamentally changed, and for those people, the new ‘normal’ is full of huge uncertainty. That is where social cohesion will start to break down and the mental wellbeing of many will be further affected.”

He expects social cohesion to be tested, especially if anger, frustration, depression and increased levels of anxiety occur and persist for some time, possibly for years.

The paper was written by Paul Spoonley, Sir Peter Gluckman, Anne Bardsley, Tracey McIntosh, Rangimarie Hunia, Sarb Johal and Richie Poulton and informed by a larger group of mental health experts. A separate report on mental health and wellbeing is being prepared.

They say the initial Covid-19 lockdown phase demonstrated high levels of trust in the Government, a sense of belonging, and a willingness to participate and help others – all classic signs of strong social cohesion.

Professor Spoonley, an affiliate member of Koi Tū, says enhanced cohesion is often seen in the initial response to major crises as communities pull together against a common threat. But as the situation evolves over time, social cohesion can be lost, and in fact may become worse than before the crisis.

“We cannot be complacent. Social cohesion is a major asset for New Zealand. A cohesive, safe and Covid-free country will enhance New Zealand’s global reputation and help project our place in the world – with positive flow on effects for our economy.

“But once lost, it becomes extremely difficult to restore, especially when there is both increased uncertainty and new forms of inequality.”

Sir Peter says in the coming months and years, there will be many decisions made by Government, individuals and businesses to recover and repair the damage caused by Covid-19, and to look for the  advantages of the ‘new normal’ that will emerge in the aftermath.

At one extreme, the decisions could be divisive and made through a top-down, partisan process, or alternatively through a constructive and inclusive process. The path we choose will impact on our social futures.

“How do we foster a sense of belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition and legitimacy? We need to empower communities and foster co-determination and as we move to respond, social cohesion must be a key policy consideration,” Sir Peter says.

This is the second discussion paper in the Koi Tū: The Future is Now Series, which looks at the long-term issues for New Zealand from Covid-19.

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