As the Covid-19 pandemic’s effects continue, discussions about whether New Zealand society is coming closer together or drifting apart is — at times, and especially online — framed around vaccinations.
Two researchers say it won’t be clear until more time has passed where the country is headed, and that there are other factors at play.
A report released on Monday by Auckland University think tank Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures said there were “warning signs” of “division”. However, it said a “relatively high” level of trust in the Government remained.
One of the authors of that report is Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley.
“There’s going to be a very long shadow from [the Covid-19 pandemic] in terms of health and economic and social security. This is not something that’s going to be fixed this month, or this year, or even in the next couple of years,” Spoonley told 1News.
“I think there’s a lot we don’t understand at this point.”
The report identified several potential threats to social cohesion in New Zealand. This included Covid-19 amplifying existing inequalities, “frustration over the consequences of Government-imposed controls”, the role of disinformation, and the increasingly siloed way people were accessing information.
Other aspects included climate change, growing inequality, and the failure to resolve long-standing social issues like housing costs and inter-generational poverty.
The report followed one from the think tank in May 2020. At the time, researchers noted Aotearoa felt a strong sense of collective purpose against Covid-19, coupled with high community compliance and trust in decision-makers.
But, it came with a warning that the enhanced social cohesion — the feeling of belonging, inclusion, the willingness to help one another, and confidence in public institutions — could begin to erode as the pandemic dragged on.
Spoonley said there was evidence of both the maintenance and waning of social cohesion.
On the one hand, he said the traffic light system was a relatively high-trust model because businesses were in charge of making sure guidelines were followed, rather than Government agencies.
He said the vaccination rollout, with about 90 per cent of people over 12 now fully vaccinated against Covid-19 nationwide, was remarkable.
“The social mobilisation of the New Zealand population to be vaccinated … shows a level of cohesion that’s extremely high.”
On the other hand, he said a sense of “weariness” was emerging.
“We’ve still got a very significant proportion of the population … who observe mask-wearing, who scan in and maintain social distancing. But, the numbers who aren’t doing that have grown significantly in the past couple of months.”
He said public health measures had recently become increasingly politicised domestically, following overseas trends.
“People are adopting political positions so, for example, mask-wearing or non-mask-wearing becomes a political statement.”
That shift had happened mainly in the past three to four months, Spoonley said.
“We’re seeing those overseas influences arriving — I’ve talked about the Americanisation of protest here. So, we’re adapting some of those arguments from the United States.”
He noted that people who were prepared to protest against certain Government policies were still a “very, very small proportion” of the entire community.
But, he believed numbers were growing.
Spoonley said there was also the personal dimension to consider.
“Going back to those moments when we’ve had a major conflict — like the 1951 waterfront strike or the 1981 Springbok tour when communities and families were very divided — it took a long time for those divisions to be worked through and to agree that you had different opinions.”
But, the difference at present was that a person’s choices could have public health consequences, he added.
Spoonley believed the general level of sympathy and tolerance toward people who didn’t follow public health rules or chose not to get vaccinated against Covid-19 had dropped.
“It’s going to be made more difficult by the fact that we now have mandates. … To access all sorts of services and goods, you really need to be double-vaccinated,” he said.
“At this point, one option is to continue to retreat because a lot of society is suddenly not available to you.
“What concerns me is when we look at some of these politics over the past decade or so, for example, the anti-1080 campaign, what you see is part of that community becomes radicalised then becomes even more extreme.
“So, I think we’ve got to expect part of the anti-Government community to become even more isolated and extreme.”
Spoonley said online misinformation was also having an impact.
“One of the things that do concern me significantly is that some of our institutions, notably the media but also politicians and experts, are defined in a particular way by the online world as being untrustworthy.”
Expert: ‘Disinformation actors’ can warp our understandings of cohesion and division
Since February 2020, Te Pūnaha Matatini researcher Kate Hannah has monitored Covid-19-related misinformation and disinformation in New Zealand.
Hannah said researchers had observed a rapid change in the type, speed, and volume of Covid-19 misinformation since the start of the Delta outbreak in August, amid a “perfect storm”.
She said it was fortunate the pandemic’s impact on New Zealand wasn’t as severe as in other parts of the world.
But, it meant ideas and points of contention seen overseas had arrived in the country more slowly, which gave it more time to build, Hannah said.
Then came Auckland’s months-long lockdown, giving some people more time at home on the internet, the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to the general public, and the extension of the jab’s eligibility to 12-year-olds.
“There was a lot of change happening at a really rapid pace. It was very hard for people to process,” Hannah said.
“At the same time this was happening, concerted efforts were being made by a small range of groups and individuals to bring internationally-based vaccine resistance and vaccine hesitancy narratives to New Zealand.”
She said those were told in compelling and, often, highly-emotional ways that could trigger fight or flight responses.
“These [narratives] are things that make people not think from their thinking brain. Instead, they’re thinking from their amygdala.
“What that means is people feel they’ve got to make a snap decision — back to that sort of being on the savanna and deciding whether the lions are going to get you or not.”
Hannah said it was important to separate those who created misinformation and the community they communicated to.
“That community is made up of ordinary New Zealanders who are scared, feel disconnected and, in some ways, maybe feel discriminated against or feel there is a lack of social cohesion for them. That is their valid experience.”
However, there were “actors” who had “been carefully promulgating messages of disruption to social inclusion, disruption of social cohesion, disruption of democratic processes, vulgarity, and profanity”, she added.
She said creating an image of disruption was “intentional” and people needed to be aware of it and push back against it.
“They are intending to make the community they’re communicating to feel as if they are the ‘in group’ and the rest of us the ‘out group’.
“Whether that’s actually true, whether there is genuinely disintegrating social cohesion yet is something that we’ll only be able to understand in the future.”
But, part of what made resisting that image of a lack of social cohesion challenging was some rhetoric against people who were unvaccinated — that it was “their problem now that they’re going to be left behind”, Hannah said.
“That, obviously, increases the sense of them being one group and then the vaccinated being another group.”
She said people needed to continue to be inclusive.
“I’ve seen some really great communications from iwi and hapu around marae and protocols — that manaakitanga can be enacted on marae,” Hannah said.
“I think that’s the kind of focus that we need to have — it’s about how we can safely gather together.
“So, rather than saying ‘you can’t come to my house if you’re unvaccinated’, you could say, ‘Hey, in our house, we’re vaccinated. So, I’m sorry. We’d love to see you at Christmas — this time, it’ll have to be outside and masked.’
“There needs to continue to be kindness. Otherwise, we will allow the ‘actors’ to create the seeds of social dis-cohesion.”
Hannah said it was important to remember that family and friends who might have been influenced by disinformation may genuinely believe they are correct.
“So, just trying to come back to having conversations about shared values, the things that bring us together.”
Te Pūnaha Matatini’s research found misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines had, in some areas, become a Trojan horse for more extreme ideologies.
It found misinformation had become more frequently tinged with violence, misogyny, racism, QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories, and extreme right beliefs — things that didn’t help build social cohesion by its very nature.
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