As the rest of Britain emerges from some of the strictest curbs on social life in peacetime history, Leicester – after a spike in the number of new COVID-19 cases - has been placed in the first of what could be many local lockdowns. In a stroke, this has left a previously unified country divided: you either live inside or outside the restricted zone. So what psychological effects could this have personally and socially across the country? We asked DMU psychologist Dr Nadia Svirydzenka.
Division and longstanding inequalities:
Calling for local lockdown may seem a simple solution, however it glosses over the need to execute it in an effective and sensitive way. A new trend of localised lockdowns, like the one we are seeing in Leicester, is not a clear-cut issue. It is complex and nested in regional issues that stem from long before the COVID19 pandemic, like the systemic inequalities faced by ethnic minority groups in the UK.
Cities in the UK - and Leicester is a good example - are hubs of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, diversity which comes with inherent disparities of opportunity that have been exacerbated in the pandemic and are further highlighted in the local lockdown. Therefore, the current lockdown is not about a simple increase of cases and the reasonable measures that follow, it is about the meaning it carries for local and wider communities.
A report from Public Health England shows that ethnic minority communities in the UK have a 10-50% higher risk of death due to COVID19 than White communities. These same communities are also more likely to experience barriers to testing and treatment. Consequently, they are more likely to face economic hardships following extended lockdowns.
So, these measures are likely to be felt disproportionally by these communities when compared to White counterparts in more affluent areas.
Significant consequences arise as a result, not only on social perceptions of diversity in the UK, but also on short- and long-term wellbeing of these groups.
Leicester is well known as a hallmark of ethnic diversity. However, since it has become the first example of local lockdown, this identity could lead to snap and erroneous generalisations. “Cultural diversity is threatening, it leads to more COVID19 cases” is a problematic conclusion people might draw from this situation.
In order to keep perspective, we have to directly address the complexity of the issues which have led to the extension of COVID19 restrictions in Leicester. Assumptions that diversity is a threat to health are, to say the least, problematic. Ethnicity and class inequity in Leicester do not make people from different cultural backgrounds more threatening, it makes them more vulnerable, both to infection and to economic hardship. The latter can be exploited, as we have seen in recent reports about the working conditions in some of the local factories.
This vulnerability predates the pandemic and is currently playing a key role in this lockdown and how people from lower socioeconomic status and ethnic minority groups are perceived and supported.
Public trust in solutions offered as way of combatting the spike in infections is important. It will motivate people to follow the guidelines for reducing infection and see measures taken as legitimate. Furthermore, this trust will help prevent communities from getting ostracised when the country has transitioned ‘back to normal’.
Consistency, transparency, equity, honesty in messaging, financial support and a ban on evictions, and support for locally informed solutions are going to be key for getting out of the crisis and effective management of infection and transmission.
So far, mixed messages, lack of transparency, and top-down approaches have been an issue. If these restrictions are perceived as fair and inequities are addressed – then people are likely to follow the guidelines.
People experiencing more hardship are also at an increased risk of developing mental health problems. The ‘social gradient’ in mental health is well established in the UK and shows that mental health problems are more common further down the social ladder, which can be exacerbated with prolonged lockdowns and social distancing.
Unfortunately, this can be a Catch 22 issue, where poorer mental health will provide another barrier to employment, of which the socio-economic consequences which then, in turn, negatively affect physical and mental health.
The sense that ‘we are all in it together’ has been especially important in encouraging people to follow social distancing rules. Breaking down into local lockdowns could erode the sense of unity and amplify inequity in society.
However, throughout this pandemic, we have seen the power of community initiatives in uniting people, breaking social barriers, and bolstering collective support. Volunteering and generosity across communities have been particularly important in establishing and sustaining a connection. We have seen a number of fantastic examples here in Leicester since the start of the pandemic, and these need to continue, not only to support the most vulnerable, but to develop a shared identity that overrides perceived differences.
It is within the group norms and values that the power to unify or divide lies, so positive activism and communal solutions fostering a strong sense of belonging and cohesion are needed now in Leicester more than ever.
Posted on Monday 13th July 2020