Social connection must become a central pillar of future policy and planning, across sectors, and for the long-term, to manufacture new ways of bringing people together, build social trust, and act as a check and balance against the profound societal shifts taking place.
This is a guest article by Laurence Heijbroek, a researcher who formerly worked alongside the Jo Cox Foundation, conducted research to underpin the national celebration event The Great Get Together, and shared insights on the UK Government’s Roundtable Discussion for Tackling Loneliness.
It is ironic that for many the common denominator that now connects us is our collective state of physical disconnection. As the Covid-19 lockdown continues for its fifth week here in the UK profound shifts are taking place, disrupting conventional communication, working, and living arrangements beyond recognition (as every good self-isolating, self-made coronavirus expert now knows).
At this time of physical distancing, I am constantly reminded — during my own efforts to stay socially connected — that for some, loneliness and social isolation were an everyday reality long before the virus emerged, and that others will have become more vulnerable because of it.
This week I was encouraged to see the UK Government release its plan developed in collaboration with a Connection Coalition to tackle loneliness and social isolation during coronavirus lockdown, by building a national conversation and confronting stigma, publishing guidance, and unlocking new funds for loneliness charities and community organisations.
Looking to the promised land beyond lockdown, I have identified six reasons why social connection must become a central pillar of future policy and planning, across sectors, and for the long-term, to manufacture new ways of bringing people together, build social trust, and act as a check and balance against the profound societal shifts taking place.
1. We are becoming more private.
My first and most obvious reflection is that the way in which private space is used has radically changed. It has become reutilised. Doctors appointments, work meetings, and religious services are now being attended from the comfort of our own homes. Whilst many gatherings will of course shift back into the public domain once the lockdown has been lifted, efficiency gains, newfound confidence in digital tools, and the normalisation of alternative practices indicate that preference for online over offline activity will in many instances be retained. This will no doubt lead us to increase the amount of time we spend in our homes and private space, decreasing the level of social contact we have with others.
2. We are becoming less available.
One might pose the question, what’s the problem with private living? Near ubiquitously used methods of digital communication can facilitate the rekindling of old connections or deepening of existing friendships, which can only be a positive thing. Yet, these tools provide limited opportunity to form new relationships. Connection can now in a sense be compartmentalised. Online activity requires that we select exactly whom we wish to speak to. And whom not to. In some instances it has enabled us to connect with others more passively. It is now possible to anonymously attend a greater number of events, whilst hiding in the background behind our keyboards (in pyjamas, anyone else?). My fear is that the price for convenience — which is of course borne out of present necessity — is sacrificing connection potential and our availability for chance meetings or life-giving encounters with others. If the default use of digital tools is to be one of the legacies of lockdown, this will be a price more frequently paid.
3. Online connection best serves those with offline community.
In this time of crisis one’s ability to navigate the social, psychological, and practical challenges one might face depends in part on the extent of one’s existing support network (without meaning to understate the incredible role community groups continue to play in practically supporting the most vulnerable in society). I suspect that this long-term shift, increasing access to — and the availability of — digital alternatives to community and events in their physical form, threatens to best serve those who have already found strong connections and community to belong to. What then for the nine million people across the UK who suffer from loneliness? As illustrated by our national response to Covid-19, which has sought to take the homeless off the streets and support the sick and elderly, we have a duty of care to protect the most vulnerable in society. This includes the lonely and socially isolated, for whom lockdown must be the greatest of challenges. This moral obligation existed before restrictions were put in place and, for their sake, must outlive them.
4. Social fractures masked by this crisis will reemerge.
Whilst a united sense of togetherness can emerge from coming through a shared challenge, I am reminded that the context prior to the start of this episode was society riven by division and polarisation (remember Brexit?). Polarisation had been gathering strength across the West — fuelled in part by social media and ideological segregation — around issues relating to national identity, culture and inclusion. It is reflected in deeper divisions, distrust, and a lack of empathy, contributing to increased difference between people. Concealed for a time by the collective challenge we face, it will emerge out of the shadows once more.
Notwithstanding the increased sense of solidarity we might share with our neighbours at this time (at a distance!), the reality is that we are less connected to our neighbourhoods than we used to be. Added to this, the traditional institutions that once brought people together (churches, working men’s clubs, the Women’s Institute) have declined. These are fertile conditions for loneliness and social isolation to breed. Many people do not connect across lines of difference, the large-scale consequence of our innate preference towards people like us. Without positive contact experiences with those different to oneself or those representing contrasting views, our opinions remain unmoderated and can become more entrenched, or even extreme. Profound social fractures weaken our collective resilience.
Building social connection into policy and planning can generate new ways of bringing people together, crossing divides, and fostering understanding, which is in this broader context greatly needed.
5. Our ability to navigate crises relies on social trust.
It is within this context of polarisation and social division that we find ourselves entirely reliant on one another, completely interdependent. A virus that ignores borders, background, and social status — a virus that, like loneliness, is indiscriminate — has brought with it a new awareness and timely reminder of the impact of our own actions on others. By choosing to ignore physical distancing rules one justifies the extension of the rules one disregards. Aside from protecting ourselves, we must also trust that others take precautionary action to protect us too. Our collective ability to deal with this crisis relies on social trust. Trust in others, trust in the government, trust in the science and the advice of health experts. For the effectiveness of our national response to Covid-19 depends largely upon the extent to which we are united in approach. After lockdown, finding ways to tentatively encourage and enable people to mix and form strong social connections with others will offer a powerful means of building up social trust. With the next collective challenge the climate crisis already at our doorstep we will need social trust to depend on one another, to act in unison, and fast.
6. Social connectedness is good for us.
Opportunity to connect socially can provide access to community for those who seek it, it can help build up social trust, and strengthen our society’s collective resilience. Social connection is good for us, and as many of us read this in isolation, hallowed opportunities to connect with others in person can’t come to us quickly enough! But more to the point, social psychology tells us that social connectedness is also good for wider society. High social capital and community connectedness are linked to individual life satisfaction, social trust, diversity of friendships and even political participation. But what I find most fascinating is that there is a contextual effect. In areas where people experience increased contact with different social groups, the above-listed benefits extend to individuals independent of their own connection activity. Creating more opportunities for people to connect with one another is good for us all.
On a personal level, as with any crisis experienced in life, I find it is best to focus on the positives but to remember the negatives. So, when lockdown restrictions are finally relaxed, it is my hope that as a society we will not forget this experience of relative isolation so quickly, we will remember to look out for those in need, and we will put ourselves in situations where we can be open, approachable, and available for life-giving chance encounters with others. If the direction of social travel, shifting towards more frequent private activity, retains some level of permanency post-lockdown, it is my view that the future health of our society — including our ability to overcome existing social fractures — will increasingly rely upon social connection being placed at the heart of planning and policy, to build social trust, act as a check and balance, and catch those whom might otherwise fall into periods of social isolation and loneliness. Let this be a legacy of lockdown.