Could NZ experience ‘lockdown fatigue’?

Overseas, protracted or repeated lockdowns have been met with an increasing unwillingness to comply with public health restrictions. Could the same happen here? Marc Daalder reports

With Auckland entering Level 3 lockdown for the second time and the rest of the country poised to follow if cases outside of the city's boundaries are discovered, epidemiologists are confident that New Zealanders will rise to the challenge like we did the first time around.

Overseas, longer lockdowns or the advent of second lockdowns have seen "lockdown fatigue" - more widespread noncompliance with public health measures, borne out of frustration or people just being at the end of their ropes.

A week ago, as the Australian state of Victoria declared a state of disaster and moved Melbourne into a stringent lockdown, University of Sydney psychiatry professor Ian Hickie warned of lockdown fatigue in an article for The Conversation.

"As Victorians face yet another long period of enforced lockdown, serious concerns are being raised about people’s capacity to comply with the new orders and the mental health impacts of such prolonged social isolation," he wrote.

"The risks of being dispirited, chronically stressed and socially disconnected are real and substantial."

Public health experts spoken to by Newsroom are optimistic that while mental health impacts may occur, noncompliance won't happen here. Because New Zealanders have seen the benefits of eliminating Covid-19 - two months at Level 1 - they will be more strongly motivated to follow public health guidelines than people in countries where restrictions have never fully eased, the experts have suggested.

"Basic human psychology would suggest some level of lockdown fatigue would occur. But I guess one difference is that these other countries have had lockdowns and, because of their suppression approaches, they've never had the sort of post-lockdown freedom experience that New Zealand has had," Nick Wilson, an associate professor of public health at the University of Otago, Wellington, told Newsroom.

"New Zealand's situation might be somewhat special in that, when people see the restrictions being reimposed, they also have an idea that we've got this reasonable chance of getting back to elimination and a freer life."

Michael Baker, a professor at Otago University's Department of Public Health, seconded Wilson's argument.

"I'm quite optimistic about New Zealanders responding to the outbreak. I think the huge differences here is the clear commitment to elimination. People can see the light at the end of the tunnel and they've had two months at Level 1, so they know the benefits from a health and wellbeing and social and economic point of view," he said.

Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist and expert on infectious diseases at the University of Auckland, made the same points as Wilson and Baker, although couched more cautiously.

"I don't know how everybody's going to do," she said.

"Compared to other countries, we had a relatively short lockdown. It was a harsh lockdown but it was a short lockdown. I would just hope that people understand the go hard, go early [approach] means that the lockdowns we do have or the restrictions we do have should not last as long.

"But it only works if we all play our part, right? I'm really hopeful that people will have really liked being at Level 1 and want to be back there as soon as possible and so they're all going to do their bit to help us get there."

Christopher Gale, a senior lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Otago, sounded a more sombre note. He believes that New Zealanders made it through the first lockdown by putting mental health concerns aside to be dealt with later.

"What's going to happen this time, I think is going to be different. And I'm not sure if that's because we've changed in the character of our people, or more that the circumstances we are in have changed," he said.

"You would normally expect that during a crisis, the amount of work that mental health professionals have drops. Because people are busy doing the crisis. You don't worry too much about how you're feeling, you're getting food on the table and making sure your kids are okay.

"You're just doing what you have to do and you deal with your emotions afterwards. Well that normally happens about four-to-eight weeks after the crisis has happened - and that's pretty much where we are right now."

Gale said that New Zealanders need to deal with mental health issues in the moment and that resources are available to them.

"People often, in crisis, rise to the challenge and then, after crisis, some people end up falling down and some people end up broken. We may now be going into a lockdown where we will be challenged to lift our psychological game, to actually look after ourselves and be more caring, when we're exhausted. When we're still in recovery from the last time around."

At the same time, he said, there is a power in the myth-making that New Zealand is a country that has faced off disasters before and can do it again.

"If there's a disaster, New Zealanders are used to disasters. We cope, initially, extremely well. We don't generally moan, or whine, or protest. We just get on and solve problems," he said.

"I'm talking stereotypes, I know I am, but these narratives actually do matter inside a culture."

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