Photo: Marty Melville/AFP
Photo: Marty Melville/AFP

PartnersMay 12, 2020

Examining the lasting effects of lockdown on New Zealand

Photo: Marty Melville/AFP
Photo: Marty Melville/AFP

New Zealand has never experienced anything like the Covid-19 lockdown of the past seven weeks. Simon Day spoke to a University of Otago researcher analysing the way lockdown has affected New Zealanders’ perception of the world.

When New Zealand went into lockdown at midnight on March 25, and the government demanded New Zealanders stay at home and businesses shut down, it was the most intensive restrictions imposed on the country in at least 70 years. The collective response by the vast majority of the population to go into and mostly stay in isolation, and the subsequent pressure that has put on the country, represents a huge opportunity for researchers to understand the way Covid-19 has affected New Zealand’s character. 

That’s why the University of Otago’s department of psychology is seeking New Zealanders to participate in research into life under the lockdown and the impact it’s had on their perception of the world. The project will explore how the Covid-19 crisis has influenced New Zealanders’ beliefs and behaviour. The researchers are particularly interested in whether crises like Covid-19 change people’s political and social beliefs and whether these changes are maintained as New Zealand shifts down the lockdown levels and the risk of Covid-19 decreases.

The University of Otago invites anyone over 18 years old to take part in the 15-minute online survey. The researchers need responses as soon as possible so participants can share their experiences of different alert levels in real time. The research team hopes to have at least 1,000 respondents take part in the survey during each alert level. 

“It is important to get responses that are based on people’s current feelings and behaviour, rather than requiring people to answer based on their memory of life under a certain alert level,” says lead researcher Dr Damian Scarf.

The data received will be examined to see how people of different age groups and backgrounds respond to crises. The initial research will take around one month, and the first study is expected to be written within the following two months.

The Spinoff spoke to Scarf about why Covid-19 is such an important opportunity to examine what our society looks like. 

Dr Damian Scarf, lead researcher of the University of Otago’s study into the impact of lockdown on New Zealanders (Photo: Supplied)

Why does a global pandemic like this present an important opportunity for researchers? 

I am a social scientist, so any major social change is of interest to me. This one is unique. We have the real threat of a virus and a need for people to abide by some very restrictive rules (mainly the need to stay at home). 

Amazingly, people not only appear to be abiding by these rules but are also taking a somewhat active role in imposing them. This is evidenced by responses on Facebook posts from major New Zealand news organisations detailing rule violations, the list of comments suggesting stronger laws be enforced, and also the number of people that have used the police contact form to report people and businesses for breaking the lockdown rules. We want to understand what is driving this behaviour, with a couple of guesses being support for certain political parties and fear of Covid-19.        

Has this behaviour – the large commitment to following the lockdown rules – surprised you? 

Yes! I think it has been amazing. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s messaging I think is key here. The “stay home, save lives” mantra is simple and clear, it gives meaning and purpose to staying at home and abiding by the lockdown rules.     

Why is it important to understand the effect of this crisis on New Zealanders’ beliefs and behaviour?

In the short term, people supporting and imposing restrictions is positive. It is also a natural response to the very real threat posed by Covid-19. In the long term, however, there are a number of potentially negative outcomes. For example, if people continue to feel anxious about Covid-19, even when the threat posed by it becomes small and the lockdown restrictions lift, it could have negative impacts on things that range from mental health all the way through to views on immigration.       

What sort of behaviour are you specifically interested in?

Our main interest is people’s social attitudes and concerns regarding Covid-19. Looking at things like people’s views on the importance of abiding by government rules (addressed with questions like “The authorities should be obeyed because they are in the best position to know what is good for our country”) and views on how the government should approach rule breakers (addressed with questions like “We should smash all the negative elements that are causing trouble in our society”). 

The questions are fascinating and really broad-ranging, from political views to how the participant feels about different age groups to their feelings around sharing drink bottles. How do you design these questions?

All the questions are taken from scales that are commonly used in social science research. For the most part, our questions are a best guess at the things that are most likely to change and the things that may cause/drive those changes. Political views are interesting because crises may increase, or decrease, support for parties in power. Views on things like how comfortable people are with sharing drink bottles we expect to be impacted by how much the threat of Covid-19 influences behaviour. The questions on young people were driven by media coverage of young people breaking the lockdown rules; we want to know if these stories have influenced prejudice towards young people. We have also added some wellbeing questions that will help us investigate the impact of the lockdown on mental health. 

We’ve never experienced anything like the lockdown imposed by the government’s response to Covid-19. How have similar experiences – the world wars, Spanish flu, the 2008 GFC – changed the fabric of New Zealand society in the past?

In general, these types of events bring people together. Jacinda Ardern has done a great job framing the Covid-19 response as a team effort, emphasising that we each have an important role to play in eliminating the virus. In addition, she has emphasised that it is not just about our risk levels as individuals, it is about protecting the vulnerable in our society. This likely means people not only feel more at one with New Zealand but also imbues us with a sense of meaning and purpose regarding the lockdown.

What unique effects does being forced into isolation have on the human mindset? 

At a basic level, we know that the isolation is detrimental to mental health. Social contact makes an extremely important contribution to our mental health, and not being able to interact with close family members and friends in normal ways will be difficult for many. Related to my response to the previous question, I think the way Jacinda Ardern has framed the lockdown has likely buffered us from some of the impact of social isolation. That is, even though we are socially distant, we are collectively doing something that contributes to the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders.      

It’s interesting that you need responses so urgently. How quickly does our understanding of the way we experienced events change in our minds? 

That is an interesting question. In lockdown levels three and four we were acutely aware of the risk of Covid-19 and this likely occupied much of our thought and attention. As we move out of these more restrictive levels, and the risk decreases, our understanding will quickly broaden and some of the wider impact on things like the economy will likely become more pressing. Much like our response to the immediate threat of Covid-19, it will be important that people view our recovery from Covid-19 as a collective effort, in which we all have an important role to play.       

Who’s in your bubble and how have you coped over the last seven weeks?

Funnily enough, I bought a house on the eve of level four and could not move in before the country went into lockdown. Thus I have spent the lockdown at my parents’ house, hanging out with my mum, dad and dog Wilson. The biggest change has been not being able to see my siblings and nieces and nephews for our usual weekly dinners. With the University of Otago campus closing, I have also not seen my 15 graduate students for the past seven weeks. Phone calls and Zoom meetings suffice, but I’m looking forward to reconnecting with everyone.      

This content was created in paid partnership with the University of Otago. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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