Living in Bubbles During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Insights From New Zealand

Long, NJ
Aikman, PJ
Appleton, NS
Davies, SG
Deckert, A
Holroyd, E
Jivraj, N
Laws, M
Simpson, N
Sterling, R
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Commissioned Report
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London School of Economics (LSE)

This report presents initial research findings on the ‘social bubbles’ policy that the New Zealand government adopted as part of its strategy for curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The concept of ‘the bubble’ proved effective at conveying the necessity of exclusive containment, while foregrounding the importance of mutual care and support that might stretch beyond a single household or home. It allowed New Zealanders who were isolated, vulnerable, or struggling to receive the care and support they needed. This success partly resulted from the strong emphasis placed on ‘being kind’ within the New Zealand government’s public narrative of the lockdown. Bubbles were expanded when it would keep people ‘safe and well’. There was high compliance with the mandate to keep bubbles exclusive, and the concept of exclusivity within an expanded bubble was generally – if not always – well understood. Adaptation to ‘the bubble’ as a new social form was not always straightforward, however, and bubble relationships could be strained by divergent risk perceptions, or differing interpretations of ambiguous guidelines. Moreover, some groups systematically found it harder to enjoy the full benefits of living in a bubble: people living in flatshare arrangements, co-parents living apart, recently arrived migrants and people who were active in the workplace. Once infection rates are sufficiently low and appropriate contact tracing infrastructures are in place, a social bubbles policy could be very effective in other countries, especially if concrete steps are taken to pre-empt some of the difficulties and inequalities that were evident in New Zealand.

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