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Lessons From Lockdown: What Could We Do Better?

The 49 days of national lockdown in 2020 created stressful dilemmas between public compliance and personal responsibilities, a new study has found.

People did pay attention to public health concerns but had to navigate competing moral imperatives and risk public censure for any perceived ‘rule bending’, says Associate Professor Susanna Trnka from the University of Auckland.

“Our respondents took action to assess risks, weighing up how to uphold the ‘spirit’ of the lockdown even while they sometimes felt compelled to break the rules of the lockdown regulations, and their decisions sometimes led to acute social rifts.”

Dr Trnka is the lead author on an article reporting the results of the study in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, which will also be included in the journal’s special Covid-19 supplement.

The study found many people actively used government information to make decisions, but some respondents – such as those in flatting and shared childcare arrangements – couldn’t participate in the collective management of risk and responsibility within their ‘bubbles’, the colloquial name for the household group they had only 48 hours to choose.

Essential workers in particular found anxieties about their workplace exposure to the virus sometimes prevented them from expanding their households in ways they might have preferred.

“Not being able to adequately care for oneself or for others therefore emerges as a crucial axis of disadvantage, specific to times of lockdown,” the study concludes.

It says there was also “significant variance” and even dispute among New Zealanders about how best to interpret the rules so as to be in line with the unifying messages from the government like ‘the team of five million’ and ‘Unite against Covid-19’.

The study includes several policy recommendations for any future lockdowns.

Key among them is the need for increased funding for health promotion and education, to recognise how many people will rely on them to make important decisions about health risks.

Government messages should also more actively address the needs of people with obligations to multiple households, and provide more detailed and accessible information on the risks of chain transmission.

An example would be children having to be transferred between households or people extending their ‘bubble’ to include elderly relatives or dependents.

It says concrete suggestions for how best to establish these kinds of arrangements as safely as possible would mitigate the increased risk of spreading the virus as a result of them.

Finally, it recommends that household ‘bubble’ arrangements should be more flexible if there is a death or terminal illness, allowing for example, limited provision to change residences or have visiting rights.

The study involved a survey of 3644 New Zealanders which was run by Associate Professor Nicholas Long from the London School of Economics.

‘Negotiating risks and responsibilities during lockdown: ethical reasoning and affective experience in Aotearoa New Zealand’ is a collaboration by 15 authors from the University of Auckland, the London School of Economics, Auckland University of Technology, Waikato University and Victoria University of Wellington.

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