One of the effects of COVID-19 is that it has exacerbated issues of loneliness and social isolation. But it's important to understand that these are two separate social issues.
It doesn't matter who you are, it's highly likely that one of the issues which you have had to deal with over the past year has been social isolation and loneliness. This is because globally 2020 is defined as the year of Coronavirus or COVID-19 and the need to prevent the spread of infection during this global pandemic has required us to wear masks and observe social distancing. It has also brought us lockdowns and various restrictions imposed on how we work (or indeed whether we can work), how we run our businesses, how we socialize, how we travel and how we participate in society. However there are many people in society who haven't been that much affected by COVID-19 and these are the people who were already previously marginalized and excluded from the community and society even before any of us had even heard of Coronavirus. However 2020 is still a year which has made social isolation and loneliness a reality that many people have to deal with.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have dramatically changed lives for literally billions of people throughout the world. Many people have lost jobs, some have lost their businesses and seen years of investment and hard work come to nothing, many people are finding it harder to maintain social and interpersonal relationships, many are missing real time, face to face social interactions with people they feel close to and through this millions and millions of dreams and hopes have been shattered or have crumbled into nothing. How have you been affected? Have you lost your job? Your business? How has COVID-19 affected your friendships, interpersonal relationships and the way you organize your social life?
COVID-19, the pandemic and lockdown has pretty much decimated the Qultura community. Prior to COVID-19 we were a very small but developing community in this little corner of South London committed to carrying out what we felt was important work in the local community, creating opportunities for people to come together to develop empathy and community. Many of our plans involved direct face to face or close social contact as we sought to bring people together through a variety of different community projects - drama workshops, a local community drop in centre, a food sharing initiative, a human library project, and work supporting the homeless and rough sleepers. We had previously developed a highly successful and popular community library which had mushroomed out of a handful of books and a single shelf into an entire wall of bookshelves in our community space with lots of books across different genres which appealed to all ages from small children upwards. Then came COVID-19 and a lockdown, our community space closed until further notice, and while we have done work to develop our Fringe community there is still much more that we were hoping to achieve.
It's especially important to understand here that things are not going to necessarily return to normal once we have COVID-19 under control, that we have brought the rate of infections down, that perhaps a new vaccine will come out and authorities can start to lift the lockdowns and remove the restrictions. There are also the after effects of COVID-19, even if you have been shielding, wearing masks, and following the guidelines on social distancing and other restrictions. There is going to be a very significant mental health pandemic and two of the biggest issues which we will still need to deal with are the social isolation and the loneliness that very many people are feeling and going through right now.
One of the biggest issues which will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic will be social isolation and loneliness and finding ways to recover from it. This is because quite often social isolation and loneliness can be detrimental to one's mental health and physical health. Here we make a distinction between being alone, which is a choice (as is self-imposed social isolation) but actual loneliness and social isolation which has been imposed and forced on you. Being alone is often a positive thing because it can help you to cultivate a healthy relationship with yourself.
What we're referring to here is being lonely, being forced into social isolation, and being socially excluded or prevented from having first hand, face to face opportunities for social interaction with other people. Loneliness and social exclusion are not choices (otherwise we wouldn't have prisons). It represents a fundamental mismatch between the relationships that we have and the kind of relationships we want or need. Loneliness is not good. Loneliness and social exclusion can have some very profound and devastating effects on our emotional wellbeing, and mental and physical health.
Many people who are struggling with serious health conditions such as depression, diabetes, cancer and heart disease often developed these conditions as a consequence of social isolation and loneliness. There was a study of over 70 peer reviewed journals which arrived at the consensus that loneliness and social isolation is the equivalent of smoking 15-20 cigarettes a day. There are many biological and physical reasons why this is the case but we feel that somewhere deep down we all understand this. Loneliness is painful and traumatic, right?
It represents a fundamental challenge to our core humanity. We crave human connection and one of our strongest and most fundamental human emotional needs is the need for affinity and the need to feel that we belong and matter to someone else or others. We crave primary social interaction (social interaction that is positive, pleasant and reaffirming) and human connection almost as much as we crave food, shelter and sex. Of course sex is virtually impossible if you don't have human connection.
So, when we lack human connection and are experiencing loneliness and isolation we develop coping strategies and start reaching out for all kinds of ways to deal with the isolation and connect to other people. We often do this in ways which can be counterproductive and unhealthy. Some people resort to coping strategies which involve food, alcohol or drugs (prescription or illicit), others go down a more sexual route, and some people throw themselves even further or deeper into their work. Some people throw themselves into their work and end up spending more time at work than they do sleeping and through this they can end up neglecting family and social relationships they share with friends. This can work out to be even more counterproductive, because as you neglect your social life it simply exacerbates the loneliness and social isolation you are going through.
Others, and this is becoming much more common, throw themselves deeper and deeper into social media and various social media platforms. Many are attracted by the apparent ease and minimal effort required in making new social contacts with people online, getting likes on the things they post and share, in getting attention from other people, sometimes many different people. This can result in the little dopamine hits you get when someone notices what you post, likes what you share, posts a comment in response to something you've posted.
But there are numerous drawbacks with trying to cope or address issues and loneliness through the social media route some of which may be obvious to you, or which you might have experienced, and others less so. The first issue is that social media is not very social to begin with. For sure it is easy to make contacts with other people through social media, because you are using technology and the internet to make contact with other people. But generally there is very little depth or authenticity to these social contacts, everything is superficial, they don't know you, and you don't know them. Everything is based on what is shared or posted, and what is commented on or liked, and there is a great deal of anonimity and people hiding behind created personas. There is very little or even no opportunity for empathy or vulnerability, because the social media platform is widely accessible to a great many people, and this can also leave you wide open to hostility, discrimination or bigotry, particularly if you identify yourself as being part of a minority or if you are different in some way, come across as different, or are perceived as different.
This is connected to the second major drawback of social media, and that most social media platforms function as little more than online popularity contests. This might be okay if you're good at getting attention and dealing with the attention that you receive, but if you are that good at getting and dealing with attention, then you're probably unlikely to be affected that much - unless you are faking it - by the issues of loneliness and social isolation. Most social media platforms operate on the basis of algorithms, in cooperation with Google - which seeks to individualize your online experiences on the internet - and these algorithms prioritize the most popular content at the expense of marginalizing the less popular content. Therefore some of what you share or post may not be seen or highlighted in the feeds of the people you have friended or are following.
There are also issues which are connected with what gets posted on your feed by other people who you have made social contacts with via the social media platform. Much of what gets posted may not be interesting to you, or may not offer any opportunities for any deeper social interaction or connection. Many social media feeds are dominated by content which is attention seeking, the 'look at me' type of posts, the political posts which comes from sharing various articles, videos, content and memes, additional content and posts from various data harvesting and attention whoring websites which collate various online content and repackage it, often as lists, the ten most or ten best, various memes which are circulating the internet, photos of cats and dogs, and so on and so forth. Furthermore if other people are doing better than you and seem more successful, you may be drawn into making comparisons, and this can lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure, reinforcing feelings that you're really not that much, or that there's not much going on with your life, and you can end up feeling even more lonely and socially isolated.
Here it's very important to understand that loneliness and social exclusion were major social issues long before COVID-19 was ever even thought of. Coronavirus hasn't caused social isolation and loneliness, but has simply exacerbated these issues. Since the 1980's the percentage of people who have reported being lonely has doubled to 40%. This means that out of every five people two experience loneliness.
There is a reason for this. The nature of human social and interpersonal relationships has fundamentally changed over the past four decades and collectively we have yet to fully adapt. We live in this digitalized 'always on' society which is pushing towards becoming even more 'always on'. This is atomizing our relationships and also removing the traditional forces and opportunities which caused us to empathize with one another. The reality is that if people are not forced or made to empathize with one another, most people unfortunately won't bother to make any effort to do so.
This is because developing empathy requires being vulnerable, and being vulnerable opens us up to being judged, stigmatized and hurt. The reality is that very few people wake up and get out of bed in the morning wanting to be judged or discriminated against. But see without the development of empathy there is no sense of human connectedness, and it is that sense of human connectedness with others - achieved through empathy, which takes away the loneliness and sense of social isolation, issues which are having a detrimental effect on our emotional wellbeing, and mental and physical health.
So you can see the depressing and sometimes tragic vicious circle that very many people are currently caught up in?
Now traditional advice to such issues at this point goes something along the lines of 'If you're lonely, put down your smartphone, send fewer emails, get off social media, and go outside and meet people..' While this makes some sense on a very superficial level, it's actually somewhat insensitive and quite inconsiderate. We need our phones, we need email, and while social media is entirely debatable this is not an issue about technology. This is an issue which comes down to a lack of human contact, a sense of human connectedness and a lack of opportunities to share and develop empathy with others. Cutting yourself off from the technology that's available and choosing to ignore it isn't going to lead to any guaranteed solution or opportunities to overcome loneliness or social isolation. This is very much a human social and cultural issue, not a technological issue.
Technology cannot replace human empathy because digital technology is only logical, digital, and is all based on making binary choices. While it's true that a PC, laptop or smartphone can logically process information much quicker and far more efficiently than you can, it's also true that your laptop, smartphone or computer cannot ever empathize with you, pick up on how you are feeling, or give you the conscious experiences of kindness, warmth, compassion, gentleness, understanding, or a sense of connectedness with other people. Only human beings can do this and it is possible to connect to other people on a much deeper level through using technology. Please bear in mind that behind every computer, laptop and smartphone is a fully conscious, living human being using it.
The various lockdowns and restrictions resulting from COVID-19 have, like most businesses, organizations and communities have caused us a considerable amount of disruption, forcing us to either scrap plans, shelve them or modify them to deal with the current situation. Being in the middle of a lockdown with social distancing and people self-isolating is particularly problematic if the focus of your community is on developing empathy and real time social interaction in the community. However we do have a freely accessible community message board which currently serves the purpose of an online community centre in the interim period while restrictions are in place. It's not ideal, it's not what we wanted or envisaged, but it's completely free of charge, registration is simple and straightforward and it enables us to keep going and remain somewhat functional. Besides you never know what might come out of it if you don't try.
We are interested in hearing people who can identify with what we have written here, who can empathize perhaps and see what we see, and who are interested in helping us to develop and rebuild our community further.
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