As COVID-19 restrictions are slowly lifted, people should plan to reconnect as soon as it is safe to do so, researchers say.
A new study indicates that otherwise many will suffer a long-term loss of social connection.
Pathways and obstacles to social recovery following the elimination of SARS-CoV-2 from Aotearoa New Zealand was conducted by the Care and Responsibility Under Lockdown (CARUL) research collective, headed in New Zealand by AUT.
It asked 966 New Zealanders living in the relative normality of Level 1, between February and August this year, how their friendships and social lives were compared to before the pandemic.
Although the majority (55 per cent) said they were “more or less the same”, a sizeable minority (26 per cent) had become less social.
Many spent less time interacting with friends and loved ones. Some had actively chosen to eschew large gatherings and public spaces in order to avoid possible COVID-19 exposures. Some were unable to see loved ones due to border controls or financial insecurity.
Others described how the 2020 lockdown had led them to “fall out of the habit of socialising” or had strained their friendships to such a degree that they could not easily be repaired – perhaps because of disagreements over New Zealand’s COVID response, or because of resentments harboured against friends who they said had neglected them during the lockdown to focus on life in their own bubble.
Some however increased the quality of their friendships, focusing on what was important to them.
Only 10 per cent though indicated that the pandemic had inspired them to be more proactive in spending time with friends.
AUT Associate Professor Sharyn Graham Davies says the findings raise important questions about how we can better support people as we emerge from this pandemic.
“This research indicates that even after successfully eliminating the virus many people did not return to life as it was. It was encouraging that some of our respondents built better-quality relationships following the pandemic. However, a significant minority of our respondents reported loss of connections and shrinkage of their social worlds long after elimination had been achieved.”
The findings raise concern about the long-term impact of the pandemic on mental health in New Zealand.
“Social connection is a fundamental human need. While some survey respondents report feeling glad to be free of excessive social commitments and obligations, for many others the changes to their social networks appear to be associated with increasing levels of loneliness, hopelessness, and depression.
“One way to avoid the lasting impacts of the pandemic is to have plans in place to reconnect as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Dr Nicholas Long – an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who has been leading this CARUL study – hopes the findings might spur policy makers and community leaders to think about how to support reconnection.
“As restrictions lift, there should be a concerted emphasis on encouraging people to reconnect,” he says.
“That will entail building confidence that it is safe to do so and helping people to resolve and move on from any arguments or tensions that arose during the pandemic.
“In the meantime, these findings indicate the importance of checking in with friends and loved ones, showing them how much they are cared for, and not letting those relationships fade.”
The research – which is forthcoming in the Journal of Public Health, and currently available as a pre-print on the medRxiv server under a different title – is part of the international Care and Responsibility Under Lockdown (CARUL) study, headed by Associate Professor Nicholas Long at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and led in New Zealand by AUT with academics from The University of Auckland, Victoria University, The University of Waikato, Kaitiaki Research and Evaluation, Australian National University and Monash University.