Liam Dann: Riding Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s Covid roller coaster

OPINION:

“Covid-19 can feel like a roller coaster that you haven’t actually bought a ticket for,” said Dr Ashley Bloomfield as he addressed the psychological impact of the latest lockdown at the Monday press conference.

It was an endearing and light-hearted moment of empathy, from a senior bureaucrat.

For me, the idea of being forced to ride a roller coaster is actually quite grim when you think about it.

Have you been tied up and dragged on board? Coerced on with threats of violence?

Perhaps it’s just that your friends bought you a ticket for a laugh and you’ve buckled to peer pressure?

Regardless, it struck a chord with me because I dislike roller coasters at the best of times.

When I ride them I always feel like it’s against my will, even though I have usually paid for the ticket and the one for the more enthusiastic child next to me.

I think an involuntary roller coaster ride is a great analogy for what we are going through.

It captures that slow grind to the top of the first peak, the sense of creeping dread we feel as the first news of a community transmission breaks; that claustrophobic sense of being strapped in and no longer in control of what happens next.

Then there’s that moment when our fears are confirmed and our stomach drops – we’re locking down … again.

Adrenaline kicks in, there’s briefly an added intensity to life, which is disorientating for most of us who are mostly just sitting around at home.

Every news update, every new clue to the likely length of the lockdown, hits like another twist or turn on the roller coaster.

Their is a heightened level of emotion in political discourse. I see it in my social media feed and in the responses to the stories I write.

I suspect the nausea-inducing effect of the ride is particularly acute for those in businesses directly affected by the lockdowns.

It must be an utterly harrowing time for event managers right now.

Many tourist operators, hospitality businesses and small retailers are already struggling with closed borders and the absence of international tourists.

Lockdown for these people is a nightmare of hard work and logistics with little or no upside.

The roller coaster analogy also works well for the economics of lockdowns.

Despite the obvious pain for small businesses, economists have been quick to point out that last week’s lockdown won’t change the overall outlook.

If you are a business owner struggling to survive, that’s a bit like sharing your roller coaster car with someone who stays unnervingly calm and keeps telling you to stop screaming.

“If you average it out, the height and pace of this roller coaster aren’t too bad,” they yell at you through the wind. “Just look through all those peaks and troughs!”

That’s macro-economics for you, though, good at describing where you’re going but not so good at describing what it feels like getting there.

It’s true that economists have got plenty wrong in the first year of this pandemic.

But they have generally overplayed the economic damage of lockdowns.

So it’s entirely logical for them to take a longer-term view and look through last week’s drama.

“It is really important that we reflect on what we have learned about the economy since the August lockdown,” wrote ASB senior economist Mike Jones this week.

“New Zealand businesses proved surprisingly adaptable to operating under restrictions,” he said.

“Many retailers, for example, have stepped up their online or contactless sales methods, enabling a fair degree of commerce to continue.”

Westpac chief economist Dominick Stephens shared similar sentiments.

“The August episode of elevated alert levels had little discernible impact on overall economic activity,” he said.

“This suggests that the early estimates of the economic cost of a temporary level 3 lockdown were too pessimistic.”

Not enough weight was given to the rebound effect, he said.

“When people are temporarily barred from certain economic activities, they often divert their spending to other things or undertake the same spending at a later date.”

This lockdown will hopefully be shorter and shallower and so the rebound effect may not even come into play to such a great extent.

If alert levels are lifted on Monday, then the whole outbreak will barely make a dent in any macro-economic forecasts.

But like a roller coaster, which takes us more or less back to where we started the journey, there are lingering effects.

The psychological impact of lockdowns on behaviour are hard to assess right now.

But I suspect it will be a fascinating area of study for in coming years.

What impact has the formula of high drama and adrenaline, followed by boredom and anxiety, had on our economic and financial behaviour?

Has it changed our to attitudes to risk?

Perhaps there will be evidence in the way our behaviour differs at the end of the pandemic compared to the start.

Last week there were still sporadic outbreaks of supermarket panic and toilet-paper buying.

How many lockdowns will it take some people to get over that one?

There is trauma to these times and so a probability that we are experiencing some post-traumatic stress.

In New Zealand we are lucky, it doesn’t bear serious comparison to the impact of wars or earthquakes.

But nevertheless it is something real and it is a collective experience.

That’s what makes it so unusual.

We’re all stuck on this roller coaster ride together and none of us bought a ticket.

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