New Zealand had great success in containing Covid-19, but public wellbeing paid a price

  • People worldwide have been experiencing high levels of distress during the Covid-19 pandemic
  • A New Zealand survey shows that, despite eliminating the virus, people's mental health took a knock
  • Researchers are encouraging governments to prioritise mental wellbeing during this time

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has been causing an enormous amount of mental distress all over the world.   

While many countries struggled to cope with high numbers of seriously ill patients, New Zealand’s speedy reaction contained and ultimately eliminated the virus. These measures, however, came at a cost, not just to the country's economy, but also to its people’s mental wellbeing, according to recent survey results.

About halfway through their toughest lockdown, a demographically representative public survey revealed higher than normal levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, especially among younger people.

"New Zealand's lockdown successfully eliminated Covid-19 from the community, but our results show this achievement brought a significant psychological toll," study co-author and psychologist Susanna Every-Palmer from the University of Otago, Canada, said in a news release.

The survey results, which included 2 010 responses from adult New Zealanders between 15 and 18 April, corresponding to days 19 to 22 of the lockdown, were published in PLOS One

Younger people more severely affected

According to the results, the level of mental distress was much higher in younger adults, with almost half of those aged between 18 and 24 experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress, compared to less than one in 10 adults aged 65 years and older.

"Substantially increased rates of distress were seen among those who reported having lost their jobs or experienced a reduction in work as a result of the pandemic, those who had potential vulnerabilities to Covid-19, or identified their health status as poor, and those who had a past diagnosis of a mental illness," said Every-Palmer.

However, it's worth noting that the study couldn't distinguish whether it was the lockdown itself that was causing the mental health effects or the broader threat of the pandemic.

Older people felt safer in NZ than elsewhere

Despite older people being at greater risk of severe Covid-19 and mortality, and having less social connection via online platforms, their mental health appeared to be less affected by the situation.

"This is not to say older people were unscathed," the authors explained, but Every-Palmer explained that “older people may also have felt they were safer in New Zealand than elsewhere”.

Overall, younger age groups appeared particularly vulnerable, which could be attributable to the lockdown’s implementation coinciding with different daily disruptions and economic impacts for different age groups.

Increase in domestic violence, sexual assault

Sadly, with the lockdown came consequences like people being confined to their homes, and a subsequent rise in domestic violence in many instances. This was consistent with local media reports, the authors noted.

Almost one in 10 participants directly experienced some form of family harm, the authors wrote. More cases of physical assault, sexual assault, harassment, and intimidation in the home were being reported – between three and four times higher than normal, according to the survey.

These results also correspond with similar increases in domestic abuse around the world during lockdown, including South Africa, News24 reported during level 3 lockdown.

The silver lining

Despite the negative toll on the economy, wellbeing, and safety of women, the majority of survey respondents (62%) said they could see the "silver lining" of remaining in isolation, whether it be for themselves or for society.

“People reported taking the opportunity to pause, reflect, consider priorities, recreate healthy habits, and they appreciated the environmental benefits brought by reduced travel,” said Every-Palmer.

In fact, a change in events such as working from home, spending more time with family, and living in a quieter environment reportedly gave some respondents the opportunity to pause, reflect and consider their priorities, the results indicate.

Respondents also showed a more positive attitude towards the end of the research period, which could mean that lockdown simply takes some time to get used to. 

Governments need to take action

However, Every-Palmer pointed out that the consequences of the pandemic will be pervasive and prolonged, and urged governments to step in and prioritise their people’s mental wellbeing. 

"Our findings emphasise the need to put resources into supporting mental well-being both during and after lockdowns.

“Governments should make providing mental health support a similar priority to other health measures, such as contact tracing, provision of personal protective equipment, and procurement of ventilators," she said.

Every-Palmer added that supporting the population’s psychological well-being includes ensuring people have access to accurate information, basic necessities and specialist mental health services, among other things.

“Free access to high-quality e-therapies and telehealth support also becomes increasingly important if people are afraid or are not allowed to leave their homes.”

READ | OPINION | World Mental Health Day: Under-investment in mental health has never been more acutely felt

READ | Lockdown, pandemic effects: Soweto study re-emphasises need for better access to mental healthcare

READ | SA involved in massive global study on effects of Covid-19 pandemic - and you can play your part

Image: Getty/Dimitri Otis

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