Getting back together

Louise Rees – National Manager Social Connection Services – Age Concern New Zealand

With the relaxation of government rules on scanning, vaccine passes, gathering limits, and vaccine mandates, New Zealanders can theoretically get back to more normal patterns of social interaction. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Getting back together will involve significant challenges. The team of five million is no longer the united entity that it became during the early part of the pandemic. A change of government rules is unlikely to result in a herd-like change of behaviour across the population or heal the divisions that have emerged between people with opposing views and beliefs.

The traffic light system allows a greater degree of personal choice about how much individuals socialize than the previous alert levels. The red setting has allowed us to continue to see friends, attend social gatherings, dine out and go to bars. This hasn’t prevented hospitality venues from reporting devastating losses as many customers exercise caution and choose to stay away. This is not surprising when the peak of the wave saw over 20,000 new infections and multiple deaths per day, and public comments about the ‘mild’ effects of Omicron are balanced by warnings of potential serious illness and long-term effects.

The level of interaction and risk that individuals within family, friend, and workgroups find acceptable varies widely. This is likely to persist since daily case numbers are predicted to remain in the thousands even after the Omicron wave subsides. The recent relaxation of rules is adding to Covid anxiety amongst disabled and immunocompromised New Zealanders. For community organisations like Age Concern Covid anxiety and caution continue to impact the delivery of normal services and activities. A March 2022 survey of 450 older people conducted by Age Concern Wellington found that over two-thirds of participants were going out as little as possible, and that only 30% were attending social activities. Added to pandemic-related losses of volunteers this suggests that our road back to business as usual is likely to be bumpy.

2022 has also seen new levels of social division and unrest relating to the vaccination itself, and to vaccine passes and mandates. Unvaccinated people are in the minority, but it is a vocal and committed minority. At the extreme end these views have led to people sacrificing jobs and taking part in violent protests. For others, it has meant missing out on contact with vaccinated family and friends and being excluded from hospitality venues, sports facilities, and public buildings. The scenes outside parliament were shocking but were also a wake-up call to the dangers of misinformation and deteriorating social cohesion.  Whilst the actions of some protesters were appalling, the hurt, sense of social exclusion, and vaccine fear expressed by many were very real.

Recent sharp increases in the cost of living will now be adding to the challenge of repairing trust in government for those feeling themselves to be on the margins. Many New Zealanders based overseas have also felt shut out of the team of five million, and Aucklanders have faced greater isolation and disruption than other New Zealanders during much of the pandemic.

Social connection matters. It affects our health and wellbeing, our happiness and even our productivity, and there is evidence that loneliness and isolation in New Zealand have increased during the pandemic.  So, it’s important that we find ways to come together and rebuild our social muscles and fabric as we learn to live with Covid in our communities. There are things that we can all do to make that happen.

Firstly, we can work on ourselves. This is a good time for some reflection on how two years of pandemic have altered our habits and our thinking. If you’ve managed to remain your best self over the past two years, I take my hat off to you. For myself, I know that during the first lockdown in 2020, I was scared, but the novelty of it was motivating. I went for long walks, had distanced conversations with strangers on the street, tried new recipes, cleaned the pantry wrote a journal and part of a novel, crocheted a blanket, and took time to appreciate the solitude, the peace, and the birdsong. I’m now in my fourth (or is it fifth?) period of working from home, and I re-read that journal last week. It was a little like reading a diary from my teens. Who was that naïve and ridiculous person? I now feel jaded, and more than two years older. This time around, I still go for walks, but those creative activities have mostly been replaced with Netflix, Youtube, and news scrolling, my social energy is reserved for close friends and family, I’m easily annoyed by noise in the street, and my lifelong love of travel feels like something from a distant past. In short, I’m not certain that this is how I want to live for the rest of my life, so I need to make some changes.

Overcoming Covid anxiety and building bridges between people with differing views and pandemic experiences will not be easy, but small steps and actions can make a difference. Wellington-based clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo writes here about pandemic-induced social anxiety and how to overcome it and begin rebuilding our atrophied social muscles. Some of us will have pulled back from face-to-face contact with family, friends or colleagues who hold different views and have made different choices about vaccines and mandates. Those on opposite sides may never agree about the facts, so getting together again will involve showing respect for personal choice, acknowledging the emotions behind those choices, and seeking to understand how people with different pandemic experiences have been affected. If we’ve become estranged from someone we care about, a first step can be letting them know that we miss them and would like to see them again.

Amongst my own family and friends, I can see a new etiquette emerging as we learn to live with Covid. Pre-pandemic, getting together used to involve working out what, when, and where. Those conversations now include discussions about how to manage risks so that everyone feels safe enough to meet. Some are unworried about catching Covid or have had it. Others only feel comfortable with precautions in place, whether that be wearing masks, social distancing, meeting outside, or continuing to meet online. It will be important to keep having those discussions, respectfully and without judgement if we are to rebuild our social confidence whilst living with Covid and make our worlds bigger again one step at a time. 

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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