Coronavirus: Grim economic realities, 'new normal' post-COVID will threaten New Zealand's social cohesion

The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic will pose a significant threat to New Zealand's strong sense of national unity, according to leading Kiwi social scientists, who claim that prolonged disruption to personal lives and grim economic realities will break down the collective purpose fostered by Kiwis in the face of the health crisis. 

That unity, reflected in the communal clapping from driveways, the chain of teddy bears peeking through windows and standing in solidarity on Anzac Day morning, galvanised communities and made a rallying call: we're in this together. But now, experts from Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, say that nationwide alliance will waver as the bleak implications of a prolonged recession become apparent. 

Released on Monday, the new University of Auckland discussion paper He Oranga Hou: Social cohesion in a post-COVID world, says maintaining social cohesion is imperative as the restrictions progressively lift, revealing the cracks in the new post-COVID New Zealand. 

Co-authored by prominent social scientists including Koi Tū director Sir Peter Gluckman and professors Tracey McIntosh and Paul Spoonley, the paper acknowledges that unemployment, financial hardship and its associated pressures will lead to increased levels of anger, frustration, depression and anxiety, testing friendships, relationships and communities. 

"We're seeing a rise in tension between conflicting economic and health interests. Sectors are starting to compete for attention. Some are in a hurry to return to a pre-COVID life; others see the opportunity for a major reset," Sir Peter said in a statement on Monday.

"Many lives have been fundamentally changed... 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."

New Zealand's strong social cohesion was evident when the Government implemented a nationwide, four-week lockdown on March 25 in a bid to stamp out the virus. The response demonstrated high levels of trust in the Government, the experts say, the lockdown fostering a collective sense of purpose and a willingness to participate. 

In Monday's statement, Professor Spoonley acknowledged that cohesion is often a preliminary response to crises as communities rally together against a common threat. But as the situation evolves, that unity can be lost - or even become worse than before the crisis.

"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," he said. 

Si Peter says social cohesion must be a key policy consideration moving forward. In order to foster "belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition and legitimacy" - the five key components of social cohesion - in our 'new normal', decisions by the Government, businesses and individuals should aim to be "inclusive and constructive" rather than divisive and partisan. 

Social cohesion can also be maintained by searching for the advantages of our new society rather than focusing on the negatives.

"A resilient society is one that not only addresses the challenges created by crises, but finds opportunities to transform positively in order to thrive in a changed environment. This requires cooperation for the benefit of society as a whole," says the paper.

"We now need to find ways to sustain and build off this platform - it would be a lost opportunity if advantage was not taken for a human and society-centered reset."

The paper is the second in the Koi Tū: The Future is Now Series, which looks at the long-term issues for New Zealand from COVID-19. The first paper from the think-tank outlined predictions for spikes in depression, anxiety and suicide. A separate report on mental health and wellbeing is currently being prepared.