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Social connection and the COVID-19 pandemic Impacts on social capital

With the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, many people are now facing the prospect of various forms of social isolation in the immediate future. People are being encouraged to maintain physical distance from others to limit the spread of the virus.

Some countries have implemented lockdowns that include banning public gatherings, cancelling sporting and cultural gatherings, closing retail stores, bars and restaurants, encouraging people to work from home where possible, and avoiding going out in public. People are encouraged to avoid close physical contact with others and many people are choosing to play it safe and avoid social interaction.

For those who face this reality, and for those who may be in this situation soon, it can seem very lonely. Working from home, cancelling social outings, not being able to go to cafes and restaurants, go shopping, or attend sporting, cultural, and political events, and having friends and family who are reluctant to get together for fear of infection. And we don’t know how long this will go on for: will ‘physical distancing’ become the new normal?

Social isolation can be extremely damaging to social capital

This seems like a disconnection from social life and a retreat to social isolation which would be extremely damaging to social capital. It could have negative effects for virtually every aspect of our lives.

For many people, social capital is critical to the performance of their job, for keeping up to date and getting important information, and for getting by in everyday life. It is vital for social support and has important implications for health and wellbeing.

As a society we seem to be lacking ideas about how to use communication technologies to replace in-person interaction to minimise the effects of social isolation.

However, during this pandemic social disconnection and isolation is not required. In most areas only physical distancing (of approximately 2 meters or 6 feet) is required. This means in-person social interaction is still possible, as long as you’re careful to maintain distance and avoid contamination. There are also lots of digital ways to stay socially connected with your family and friends and your community.

Unfortunately, many people are unfamiliar with these methods and may feel uncertainty about participating. As a society we seem to be lacking ideas about how to use communication technologies to replace in-person interaction to minimise the effects of social isolation.

Could we hold interest group gatherings using live video technology? Can the local environment group, or book club, or car enthusiasts group hold social functions online? Can support groups do the same? Can we recreate incidental patterns of interaction, like the guy I say hello to every morning who is walking his dog, the woman who serves me at the café, the local walking group, etc?

Is there a way to see ‘community’ and the interactions happening in the community? We know behind all the empty streets are buildings full of people, many being social. But how do we see the community when people are in isolation so that we can feel the sense of community and solidarity that is so important to social capital and minimising feelings of social isolation.

When most people think of social capital they think of in-person social gathering and interaction. They think of meeting new people and spending time building and enhancing social relationships. However, there is more to social capital than relationships. Some people may disagree with this statement, depending on how you define social capital, but for me and many others, social capital involves the values and beliefs that influence how we relate to others.

These values and beliefs may be anchored or manifested in social relationships but are based on mental constructs that transcend our relationships. They provide the basis for our thought and action, and where they relate to others, we could call this social capital.

It relates to our feelings of community and belonging to that community or social grouping. It relates to our beliefs about trust and trustworthiness, and to solidarity and social support. It relates to our values of equality, fairness, compassion, and service.

Showing care and compassion is likely to build social capital

We can enhance these values and beliefs in ourselves and we can influence others’ values and beliefs through our actions. Contacting a friend or neighbour and showing care and compassion is likely to positively influence their values and beliefs, therefore building social capital. Additionally, showing selfishness and disregard for others is likely to negative influence others’ values and beliefs, thereby damaging social capital.

We can choose how we respond in this difficult time. We can choose to focus on community and solidarity and to care for and help others in need. Or we can choose selfishness, to look out for ourselves and disconnect from our community. Our choice has important implications for others.

You may not know how, you may need to develop new ideas, you may need to learn new skills, and it may be difficult, and you may feel uncertainty.

While self-isolating it may be easy to just turn on the TV or scroll social media. But making the effort to connect with others and show compassion and solidarity will make you feel better and help everyone feel better. You may not know how, you may need to develop new ideas, you may need to learn new skills, and it may be difficult, and you may feel uncertainty. But it’s important.

Now is the time to support those who are economically disadvantaged. If you have the means, think of who is most affected and how you could help. Can you afford to donate to the local community theatre, to local artists and musicians, to people who have lost their job due to the pandemic.

Now is the time to provide social support, see who you can help and how. Reach out to people in your community. Perhaps you know an elderly woman who lives alone in your neighbourhood. If you know someone who may be feeling socially isolated, try to make contact (not physical contact).

Try using communication technologies for activities you would normally do in person. Make a cup of tea, sit and chat, cook dinner or fold the washing while connected with someone. It may not feel normal, but simply spending time digitally connected with others can really help. Try communicating how you feel about others with words since the technology may not accurately relay them. It may feel awkward, but let the other person know you love them, care for them, and will do anything you can for them.

Try including more than one person in a call, chat or live video at the same time. Get together online with a group of friends and try including other friends in the group who may have similar interests. Try chatting with multiple family members at the same time.

Adversity can bring a community together and mobilise it to solve collective problems.

We need leaders and facilitators who can organise and coordinate within our communities. You don’t need any special role or skills to take action, just some ideas and the motivation to get started.

Pandemics tend to change society. Adversity is an opportunity if we choose it to be. Adversity can bring a community together and mobilise it to solve collective problems. Will this COVID-19 pandemic make us more disconnected and more narcissistic, or will we use this opportunity to push the boundaries, explore new processes, and make communication technology work for us and our communities?

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