Covid 19 coronavirus: Will New Zealand choke just when the finish line’s in sight?

Lockdown fatigue could undermine New Zealand’s social cohesion and the early gains made in fighting Covid-19, experts say.

Associate Professor Susanna Trnka, lead author of a major level 4 study, said the public mood had shifted for several reasons since last year’s national lockdown.

“There was a sense at the time of ‘this is a crisis’. In exceptional times, people will do exceptional things,” the University of Auckland social anthropologist said.

She said the widespread co-operation during level 4 last year was partly because many people had urged the Government to initiate lockdown.

The latest restrictions, partly attributed to breaches of self-isolation guidance in some recent community cases, have resulted in Auckland’s fourth lockdown.

Now, Trnka said lockdown fatigue might be a factor.

“It feels less pressing and less urgent,” Trnka said.

She said the dangers of complacency might explain why the Prime Minister yesterday reminded New Zealand: “Covid kills people.”

After the national lockdown, New Zealand was lauded for its pandemic response.

And recently, Covid-19 vaccines have brought hope of a major breakthrough or even an end to the pandemic.

But those vaccines have not yet been administered locally on a large scale, and in recent weeks Auckland has oscillated in and out of lockdown.

Trnka said complacency, combined with fatigue from lockdowns, could jeopardise the current lockdown’s success.

“You often fall just before you reach the finish line.”

Trnka and her co-authors found level 4 lockdown’s success stemmed greatly from citizen participation, not from a heavy police presence or show of force.

But Trnka said Aucklanders’ current behaviour seemed different from the first lockdown, based on her observations since yesterday morning.

“There was no social distancing. Nobody was wearing a mask.”

Lockdown fatigue or exhaustion, and its nuanced impacts on different people, has been identified in multiple studies.

A German study published on February 21 in the International Journal of Psychology found women with children working from home during lockdowns when childcare was unavailable were especially exhausted.

In the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority last week identified lockdown fatigue as a major risk to staff and businesses.

Prof Richard Porter from the University of Otago said moving in and out of lockdowns could severely impact mental health.

“One of the aspects in severe mental illness that we’ve been interested in is the repeated disruption of routines,” the consultant psychiatrist said.

Porter said lockdowns could disrupt the normal circadian rhythms which were honed by a person’s work hours and other daily routines or obligations.

He said this was of concern especially to people with severe mood disorders, depression and bipolar mood disorder.

Porter said people struggling with lockdown fatigue or disruption should try where possible to establish consistent sleep, exercise, and socialising habits.

He said socialising during lockdown might mean a Zoom call scheduled on a regular basis.


“Social cohesion remains high compared to many similar countries,” sociologist Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley said.

But with each episode of lockdown, a “fatigue factor” meant less cohesion, he said.

Spoonley, from Massey University, said Google mobility data showed very high compliance with travel rules during the level 4 lockdown.

Compliance fell in the second and third lockdowns.

Spoonley believed many non-English speakers weren’t getting adequate messaging about Covid-19 rules and guidance.

He agreed with Manurewa ward councillor Efeso Collins’ concerns about inadequate information arriving in homes where English was not the first language.

Collins told Newstalk ZB that community leaders, church leaders and social agencies had been trying to educate residents where central government messages weren’t arriving.

Trnka also said the Government faced challenges in communicating lockdown and self-isolation rules and guidelines.

She said authorities had to give clear guidance about an unprecedented crisis without subjecting people to information overload.

Society needed to understand the pandemic, but additions to the lexicon such as “casual plus contact” could confuse people, Trnka said.

Variations from the established four-level alert system, with terms such as “Level 2.5” used in Auckland last September could also muddle the messaging, Trnka said.

She said challenges emerged from dispensing information where cultural mores diverged from those commonly seen to be mainstream.

“Translating it is not just linguistic translation. It’s in ways that make cultural sense.”

She said one study found terms such as “bubble” used in the battle against Covid-19 could cause unexpected confusion in translation.

“What they were finding is that even if you translate ‘lockdown’ into a local language it doesn’t necessarily make sense.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today encouraged people to talk to their loved ones and colleagues about complying with Covid-19 health advice.

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