Something is missing from our current public discussion about Covid-19.
Opinion article by Stacey Shortall
While our sights are properly set on keeping death numbers low and supporting businesses where possible, we risk being blindsided by the disproportionate way in which fighting this disease has impacted our people, and what that could cause.
For Covid-19 is bringing out from the shadows and into the spotlight the inequalities that sit at the heart of our country.
While the key government messages in response to Covid-19 have been simple - stay home, wash your hands, drive only to collect groceries or medications, maintain social distancing, be kind and be united - the wide chasm between those New Zealanders who have means, and those who do not, renders the application of these messages far more complex.
It is one thing to stay home with your small nuclear family in a spacious house with multiple bathrooms in a leafy suburb where footpaths are now decorated with colourful chalk drawings. It is quite another thing to stay home with three generations of your large family in a cramped house with one sink in a impoverished suburb where no one can afford to buy extra food staples, let alone chalk.
It is one thing to have enough money to visit a supermarket to buy ample food to last a month. It is quite another thing to scarcely have the money to feed your family tomorrow or even a working fridge large enough to store extra food even if you had any.
It is one thing to be able to afford to have fresh meal kits, fruit and vegetables, and meat, delivered to your doorstep, while you supervise your children undertaking their online schooling. It is quite another thing to anxiously await receipt of staples from a local food bank, while you accept that your children will watch TV much of the day because you have no or very limited internet access.
It is one thing to have the luxury of living on a property with its own backyard and in a community where it is easy to stay 2m apart. It is quite another thing to live in a block of flats with shared outdoor areas and hallways that permit no such easy spacing.
Covid-19 did not create disparities in New Zealand, but it has brought them into sharper focus for us all to see if we choose to do so. That is because staying home, working from home and educating children from home are experiences that are being lived very differently in households around our country.
There are women and children in our country for whom staying at home is risky and unsafe. They are not curling up on a couch to watch Netflix or joining friends for a virtual coffee over Zoom, but rather waiting on tender hooks for the tension in their houses to subside without violent outburst.
There are workers in our country - especially those who earn lower wages - who simply cannot work from home. They cannot clean workplaces, deliver furniture, cut hair, fix machinery, load restaurant dishwashers or wait tables from the comfort of their living room. Rather they slip into or at least towards unemployment.
There are parents in our country - especially those who are already under immense stress and pressure - who cannot educate their children from home either. Without internet access or adequate devices, let alone a clear understanding of what needs to be taught, they cannot easily become teachers of specific curriculum from home. Their children can become frustrated, disillusioned and disengaged.
Yes, we appear largely united in New Zealand to fight against Covid-19. But there is no getting around the fact that we are divided in how this disease is affecting our lives.
Those divisions run deep and long. It is well-established that New Zealand has one of the highest levels of income and wealth inequality in the OECD. Around 23% of New Zealand children live below the poverty line (after household costs are deducted from income) and many of our adults suffer material hardship. Nearly 14,500 households are on the public housing waiting list. Homeless people sleep rough in parks and other areas around our country. Food banks feed many New Zealanders.
While New Zealand will hopefully avoid the devastating Covid-19-related death toll that other countries are enduring, we will not escape the pandemic’s societal toll.
When at some point - hopefully soon - we all get to leave our homes and seek to return to something of our pre-lockdown lives, some of us will emerge with our jobs intact, perhaps even having saved money by being stuck at home and with renewed buying power. Others of us will emerge unemployed, with savings depleted, debt increased, and carrying real anxiety about what the future holds. In this way Covid-19 will have pushed the socioeconomic chasm in New Zealand even further apart. It will have widened the social and economic divisions in our country.
Any such outcome could make Covid-19 deadly beyond those who catch the disease and are sadly unable to recover (which hopefully will be few). This is because even for those of us who remain healthy, when we suffer loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of education and/or loss of certainty, despair can grow. And despair can have profound consequences in a country like New Zealand where suicide rates, self-harm incidences and mental health issues generally are often alarming.
Increased hardship can also fuel other health consequences for people. Lack of proper nutrition, not to mention the inability to pay for heating and warm clothing over winter, make children and adults more susceptible to other sicknesses that can reduce life expectancy.
To truly unite against Covid-19, we need to fight against inequality in New Zealand.
While government will of course have a large part to play, we also need more of us with means helping more of us without means. Sure, part of this is about kindness. But it is also about something much more fundamental. It is about each of us looking beyond our bubble and actively helping to stifle the toll of this disease on other New Zealanders manifesting far beyond intensive care units. It is about bringing us together, not keeping apart.
Unless we do so, as New Zealand grapples over coming months and even years with managing Covid-19 outbreaks, the socioeconomic chasm in our country will only grow. The consequences of that chasm may ultimately be greater than the death toll we are all so committed to avoiding right now.