Connectivity, Community and COVID-19
There’s a meme doing the rounds on the web. ‘Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. You can do this.’ Of course, it’s the grandparents’ generation who are least likely to watch Netflix, or to have established web-based communities. The unprecedented challenges we’re experiencing due to the novel coronavirus pandemic mean it’s now more important than ever to engage with each other online – and especially with those who aren’t used to it.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has caught the world by surprise. On almost every conceivable measure – medical supplies and personnel, economic resilience, policy frameworks, work habits and more – we are racing to catch up. In less than three months, life has dramatically changed for nearly everyone, and the situation shows no immediate signs of letting up.
There are frequent comparisons to the Second World War in the sense of the restrictions and requirements that are being imposed, or that may soon come into play, from rationing (what is it about toilet rolls?) to limiting travel. These are things most people alive have never experienced, and we are not used to them. In the war, people dealt with the challenges by coming together – physically and figuratively. One of the cruellest realities of the COVID pandemic is that it is a crisis that forces us to keep our distance. In normal times, social isolation is viewed as a serious problem, our connection to people and good mental health are intrinsically linked, and both things are at risk during this pandemic. Now, without exaggeration, it is fast becoming a condition of collective survival.
1st century community
Our ability to travel quickly, cheaply and easily has accelerated the spread of the virus beyond anything we’ve seen in the past. Although the outbreak is by no means unique in history, the circumstances are unprecedented. At the same time, we are in other ways better equipped than ever before to deal with it. Medicine and epidemiological modelling are far more advanced, and communications technologies enable us to access real-time updates about the latest advice and developments. Meanwhile, the internet offers new ways to connect with each other – if not physically, then at least still in meaningful ways that meet some of our needs for community.
The rise of the online community is relatively recent, something that has only been possible on a large scale in the past 20 years or so, and only really a part of everyday life for ten or 15 years. At a time when physical and local communities are under threat – both from the pressures of everyday life and the unique situation of the pandemic – online community is set to become more important than ever before. For many people forced into social distancing or self-isolation, the most effective ways of combating the spread of COVID-19, online community is the only kind of community they will have for weeks or even months.
Since online communities first became possible, there have always been people who sought company and friendship on the web, and who grasped the significance of this even at a time when many others looked down on online interactions as a kind of second-rate form of relationship. While there can never be a perfect substitute for spending time in the same physical space as friends and family, COVID prompts us to think again about how we might make the most of web communities, messaging and video calling technologies.
Life isn’t going to stop entirely, but a lot of people are going to find themselves with a lot more time on their hands. No commutes, no social engagements. Possibly no work. It’s no surprise that companies like Netflix, Amazon and Steam are seeing activity spike.
If that’s the case for you, then in between passing the time by binge-watching the next box set or starting the next round of Counter-Strike, why not use the web to check in on someone who is now isolated by the virus? A family member, a friend you won’t get to meet for a while, an elderly neighbour who might need an errand run or simply a conversation.
As our physical social circles decrease to near zero, online communication has suddenly taken on a new significance. For the next few weeks or months it’s going to be vital for a large number of people who never expected to rely on it.
Get more tips on how to remain “sane and safe” during social distancing from the NSC Congress Safety + Health publication..