Solidarity and affective commitments have helped us “flatten the curve”

4 May 2020

By Dr Olli Hellmann, Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations.

World-wide, New Zealand has been lauded for crushing the coronavirus. The scale of this achievement cannot be overestimated. Slowing the spread of infection requires that we all make major sacrifices and live our lives differently. What is particularly astonishing is that often we make these sacrifices for the benefit of others: people with underlying health conditions, older adults, and frontline workers.

“Flattening the curve” of the pandemic is thus a classic collective action problem. What this means is that individuals who do not fall into the “high risk” category have a rational incentive to “free ride” on others’ sacrifices and continue to live life as normal. For example, we may decide to go surfing, calculating that enough other citizens are self-isolating at home to slow the disease’s spread. And here lies the dilemma: if too many of us decide to “free ride,” we won’t beat the coronavirus.

How have we succeeded in overcoming the collective action dilemma?

One explanation would highlight the importance of effective surveillance and rule enforcement. Already in the run-up to the lockdown, the government made it very clear that any breaches of the “stay at home” measures would be punished. During her final press conference before the Level 4 rules came into force, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern prepared New Zealanders to see both police and military on the streets. The next day, the news media ran eerie photographs of empty streets, empty shopping malls, and empty beaches. These images – and similar images published in the subsequent weeks – communicate to New Zealanders that the threat of punishment is credible: “Don’t expect to find safety in numbers!” Meanwhile, a police website for reporting suspected lockdown breaches was so overrun with complaints that it crashed just hours after being launched.

Without doubt, the draconian “stick” approach has helped flatten the curve and avoid overwhelming our public healthcare system. However, this hierarchical top-down solution to collective action is only part of the story.

Rather than encouraging compliance through fear of punishment alone, we – as a society – have pulled together to foster a collective feeling of “groupness.” Despite being physically isolated in our individual “bubbles,” we have strengthened our connections with each other, thereby creating what the political scientist Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community.” We have placed teddies in our windows to let our neighbours know that we are looking out for each other. We use social media to engage in group rituals, such as #formalfriday and #bekind. We have shared videos online that capture the full emotional breadth of the lockdown – from sadness to joy, from frustration to hope.

The “imagined community” that we have built hardens our affective commitments to the collective effort in eradicating the coronavirus. As sociological and psychological research shows, a strong group gives a sense of belonging; members develop mutual trust and a sense of being part of something greater.

Importantly, the tone of solidarity was set at the highest levels of government. The Prime Minister has repeatedly stressed that “we fight the virus together” and the opposition has been praised for playing a critical, yet non-obstructive, role. Through social media, we see regular glimpses of mundane family life in Jacinda Ardern’s “bubble,” which give us a sense that politicians “are in this with us.” Last week, government ministers announced that they will take a 20% pay cut lasting six months to show solidarity with those affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

In countries that struggle to “flatten the curve,” political leaders have failed to build a sense of solidarity. In the US, President Donald Trump has been playing an ugly blame game, while in the United Kingdom the government of Boris Johnson initially pursued a strategy of “herd immunity,” thus signalling that they were willing to “sacrifice” older people and other “high risk” individuals to save the economy.

As New Zealanders, we can be proud of the strong sense of belonging that we have created over the past few weeks. However, the hardest test of our solidarity is perhaps yet to come. Already, there is evidence that some parts of society – in particular, Māori and Pasifika communities – will be particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. We must ensure that, when re-building the economy, we pay special attention to these inequalities. Moreover, we are likely to see heated political debates over public spending priorities. This is understandable: the coronavirus pandemic provides a rare “window of opportunity” to set the country on a different track. Yet, amidst these debates, we must not forget to treat each other with respect and kindness. We continue to be in this together.

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