He Oranga Hou: Social cohesion in a post-COVID world

Social cohesion is critical to our recovery. He Oranga Hou: Social cohesion in a post-COVID world is the second discussion paper in the Koi Tū: The Future is Now Conversation Series.

Written by Prof Paul Spoonley, Sir Peter Gluckman, Anne Bardsley, Prof Tracey McIntosh, Rangimarie Hunia, Sarb Johal and Prof Richie Poulton, it examines our collective unity – rarely seen outside wartime – and how that will be tested in the months ahead.

A resilient society is one that not only addresses the challenges created by crises, but finds opportunities to transform positively in order to thrive in a changed environment. This requires cooperation for the benefit of society as a whole. New Zealand is generally regarded as a country with a high level of social cohesion, given our considerable diversity; but underlying vulnerabilities and issues remain that are yet to be fully addressed. As discussion turns to how New Zealand might reset as it moves forward from COVID-19, we argue that sustaining and enhancing social cohesion should be a collective priority. New Zealand’s cohesiveness has been evident in the early responses to COVID-19, but we cannot afford to be complacent. It may be challenged in the coming months, as many decisions made by the Government and by individuals and businesses could create tensions in the face of different views of the best path forward. Once social cohesion is lost, it becomes extremely difficult to restore, especially when there is both increased uncertainty and new forms of inequality.

The challenges will rise as the country begins to transition out of the acute phase. Already, tensions between economic and health interests have emerged. Some are in a hurry to return to a pre-COVID life; others see the opportunity for a major reset. Concerns over the centralisation of knowledge and authority have been expressed. Transparency around the evidence base for key decisions is critically important if they are to be accepted by the public. The emergent contestation of views about the longer-term future for Aotearoa-New Zealand needs to be cohesive, not divisive, if we are to find advantage in the recovery. The crisis has brought into stark relief the position of those who were already experiencing social and economic difficulties. However, at the same time, there are many more people who are going to struggle as a result of the impact of COVID-19; their futures and aspirations may have been shattered. With expanded vulnerability, many may become angry, frustrated, depressed, anxious and suffer a loss of hope which may persist for years.

Under such conditions, social cohesion will be threatened. Māori have historically experienced disproportionate adverse effects of infectious disease and have expressed concern that they have been inadequately involved in decisions that affect them in the current crisis. It is essential to recognise, acknowledge and support the often-inspiring leadership among Māori in addressing their communities’ needs in this crisis.

Similar comments apply to among Pacific peoples, both in terms of some of the community initiatives already in evidence, and that need further support and recognition. As a democracy heading towards an election, it is inevitable and healthy that there is a contestation of ideas. However, the reset must not be captured by partisanship and the political cycle because the decisions and actions required must consider the long-term and not simply immediate or short-term fixes. This requires recognition of the need for co-production and codetermination in developing responses that are both sensitive to the different needs of communities and stakeholders and move New Zealand forward. Agencies must seek to co-produce policies, not simply to consult in an often-tokenistic way with communities and stakeholders. To maintain trust, regular and transparent information flows are needed. We also need to enhance our ability to evaluate programmes rigorously and measure the impacts of policies on cohesiveness. If New Zealand can emerge as a cohesive, safe and COVID-free country, this will not only enhance our global reputation, but will help project New Zealand’s place in the world, with flowon effects for our economy and our citizens. To achieve this, we need to build on the aspirational hopes and positivity that characterise much of New Zealand society, and which have been apparent during the acute phase of the crisis. At the same time we must also acknowledge the unaddressed issues that existed before the crisis and give greater emphasis to addressing these. We now need to find ways to sustain and build off this platform – it would be lost opportunity if advantage was not taken for a human- and society-centered reset.


“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt … Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine the world anew. This one is no different.”
– Arundhati Roy

Roy, A., 2020. ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’, Financial Times, 4 April.


As we transition to a post-COVID-19 world, it is critical New Zealand and New Zealanders consider the factors influencing the  nature and degree of social cohesion – and how to enhance social cohesion as a reset is undertaken. To return to the definition  offered earlier, what will this reset do to enhance a sense of belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition and legitimacy?
This suggests a number of questions requiring honest inquiry as we move ahead.

  • Will there be new vulnerabilities that add to those already experienced by individuals, family/whanau and communities? Will the levels of belonging, inclusion and participation be reduced, thereby affecting levels of social cohesion? Or can we sustain a high level of cohesion?
  • In a much more constrained world – economically and socially – will there be more or less recognition of those who are the most vulnerable?
  • Will the confidence of New Zealanders in their core institutions and government during the acute phase be replaced by cynicism and reduced levels of trust in these institutions in the medium- to long-term? A cohesive, safe and COVID-free country can add much to its global reputation, which can help project New Zealand’s place in the world, with flow-on effects for our economy. To achieve this, we need to build on the aspirational hopes and positivity that characterise much of New Zealand society and which have been apparent during the acute phase of the crisis. We believe this country has demonstrated a high level of social cohesion on various occasions. We now need to explore and develop different and innovative responses that will strengthen this tradition.

You can view and download a copy of the full report here: 


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