Our attention is now turning to how our ways of life will need to change, raising important questions about our democracy, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Esther Marshall 

As New Zealand enters Covid-19 Level 3, thoughts are shifting to what life under Level 2 and beyond will look like.

World leaders, thinkers and health experts advise that life after lockdown will need to look very different, and for the long term. Our attention is turning to how our ways of life will need to change, and this raises important questions about our democracy.

New Zealand can draw on its responses to disruptive events in its own recent history. The Christchurch earthquakes, in particular that of February 22, 2011, significantly affected the lives of many New Zealanders, killing 185 people and permanently changing the face of Christchurch. With the central city a red zone, most of the buildings within it destroyed, it was clear life would not be returning to normal any time soon.

Many people in Christchurch will tell you that while there is loss in crisis, there is opportunity as well. This thinking prompted the ‘Share an Idea’ initiative that gave citizens the opportunity to communicate their own ideas about the future of their city. 

Share an Idea welcomed contributions from local residents over a two-day Community Expo in May 2011, as well as online contributions from people across the globe, many of them former Christchurch residents. Over 21 percent of the local population participated and 106,000 ideas were put forward. 

This kind of democratic initiative inspired people to look beyond the tragedy and loss and think creatively about their future. Citizens felt a unique sense of community and hope, empowered to have real influence over bringing to life the city they imagined.

Over time, a shift in power away from the local community was apparent. The official plan for the central city was to be the chief responsibility of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), the government department charged with coordinating the rebuild of Christchurch. 

The public was told its active input and participation would not be in vain. However, it was difficult to accept these assurances once it became clear that significant, ongoing opportunities to continue the conversation between citizens and chief decision-making bodies would not continue. Citizens expressed disagreement with the official blueprint, which announced an allocation of expenses that seemed to prioritise large-scale entertainment venues over immediate needs like housing.

Community participation would take on different forms. Local projects and initiatives like Gap Filler – a social enterprise collaborating with the community, public and private sector to creatively use space – inspired citizens to actively repurpose the empty spaces around them in resourceful and imaginative ways. Still, one can’t help but wonder what Christchurch might look like today if the conversation between the people and their representatives had continued in the same spirit in which it started.

Covid-19 has not brought about the physical destruction of a city, but it does involve a major shake-up to our way of life. If life must change, how might we respond in a way good for all of us? We will need to identify the gaps in our thinking and practices of the past, to discover ways of doing things for a future that is better for all New Zealanders.

What if New Zealand had a national Share an Idea initiative, inviting citizens to participate in a conversation about their experiences and what they want their post-lockdown future to look like? What if we asked all New Zealanders questions like: What supports did you need during lockdown that weren’t available? We could establish something that goes beyond consultation to create an ongoing dialogue between members of the public and their representatives.

In the 1950s, Muzafer Sherif led the ‘Robbers Cave’ experiment. Participants – about 20 boys aged 11 and 12 – were divided into two groups competing for resources at summer camp. Interactions between the groups became increasingly tense.

In what is widely regarded as an example of realistic conflict theory in action, it took a common problem faced by all participants – the water supply being cut off – to unite the groups. Superordinate goals (objectives that everyone has in common) were required to ease tensions and have groups work together rather than against each other. 

The success of the Covid-19 lockdown in New Zealand is due in significant part to our national leadership. However, just as significant has been the response of the New Zealand public. 

Regardless of our differences, New Zealanders share the goal of making it through the Covid-19 crisis as best we can, together. Yet just because we have a shared goal does not mean we have all experienced this crisis in the same way, nor carried its weight equally. The aspirations different New Zealanders have about how we might prepare for and respond to future crises are therefore likely to vary. 

Citizens must have ways to communicate their different experiences and ideas with one another so we can better understand what this crisis has meant for different people and how we might better prepare for future events. Much of this information will not be clear until we have a better idea of the extent of the impact of Covid-19 on New Zealanders’ lives.

The fact this crisis affects all of us, albeit in different ways, might just be what prompts us to adapt to life post-lockdown in a way that is fair and accommodating to everyone. 

Opportunities for ongoing dialogue – where the voices of decision-makers and members of the public alike are shared and responded to – might just be what helps ensure New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 continues to be world leading.

Esther Marshall is a Master' student in the Philosophy programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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