Social capital and the lockdown (2): how isolation is affecting our social bonds

Recently I posted a brief summary of research into social capital’s consequences for our current pandemic. We know much less, at this stage, about the way the pandemic, and particularly social distancing strategies, is reshaping people’s social ties. So here’s my attempt to summarise briefly what we do know; be warned that some of the evidence comes from snapshot survey findings and is therefore more limited than I’d like.

We certainly know that loneliness is seriously bad for one’s health, and I assume that social distancing on your own is a pretty lonely experience – possibly even a frightening one. Equally we know that mixing with family and friends is good for health and well-being, and presumably distancing can damage that. And studies of the SARS pandemic concluded that social isolation combined with extreme uncertainty had created severe psychological stress.

Some researchers, drawing on data from China, have linked isolating with anxiety, sleep disorders, and depression; similar findings are reported for Italy. It isn’t clear, at least to me, how far these patterns are a result of lockdown and the loss of social support systems, or are a consequence of fear of infection. Still, there clearly is a down side, with isolation depriving people of the social anchoring that they depend on.

Then there is the impact of the pandemic on fragile or exploitative social bonds. A number of countries report a rise in home-based violence (usually, but of course not always, male on female or adult on child). Whether we will also see a longer-term rise in family break-ups as a result of confinement combined with anxiety is yet to be seen.

And anecdotally, while most of us appear to be willing to protect the community by distancing, all of us have seen cases of selfishness bordering on crass stupidity, like cyclists and jogger insisting on exercising their overtaking rights in narrow footpaths. Is there also an up side?

One way to look at this is to focus on social media and our ties. While we might moan about Zoom meetings, they allow us to see and engage with workmates, family, and friends in a way that was unimaginable in past times. Yes, of course a virtual hug with grandad isn’t the same as the real thing, but it’s a hug; and many of us are becoming ever more adept at communicating in new ways.

Second, at least in the UK, there has been an upsurge in volunteering. Much of it is informal and unseen, from women sewing face masks to people phoning an elderly neighbour. One survey estimates that a fifth of UK adults have started volunteering in their community since the pandemic broke; two-thirds of all UK adults reported that their community was stronger as a result of the pandemic. Mutual aid groups have sprung up across the country, and are increasingly linked together as a movement.

Third, there have been highly visible symbolic expressions of mutual solidarity. The best example was the weekly public applause for key workers, which in our street was led by an increasingly proficient piper playing Highland Cathedral. Some of my Facebook friends sneered at the people who came out to applaud, but not one of them is a nurse, hospital porter, bin collector, care assistant, soldier, or delivery driver.

Public solidarity with low-paid and largely disregarded workers is a rarity, and not something I can view with contempt. And certainly in our case, lockdown has seen increased interaction with neighbours, whether in the aftermath of the Thursday applause or in the form of book exchanges, distanced coffee mornings, or chatting among wild garlic gatherers.

Like other forms of social capital, symbolic solidarity has consequences: recent survey data show a massive rise in the number of key workers who say they feel appreciated by the public. This is a body of goodwill that needs to be nurtured if it is to be sustained.

And then there is the converse: public contempt in the UK is largely reserved from those who break the lockdown. A particular fury greets public leadership figures who ignore the rules that they themselves have made. While the Scottish government seems to have got away unscathed with its botched (or worse) handling of its hypocritical Chief Medical Officer’s behaviour, the UK government’s handling of the Cummings scandal seems to have cost it dearly: trust in government information fell sharply in its wake, among people of all political persuasions and none. On the other hand, the communal solidarity of people who have observed the rules for those who seek optouts has been deeply impressive.

One conclusion I draw from the research studies is that our online behaviour is providing social scientists and others with an awful lot of valuable data. These raises ethical issues which will be familiar to many of those who use data from social media and mobile device records.

But my wider conclusion is that the pandemic really is reshaping our social bonds. The early signs suggest trends that might simply be short term responses to particular circumstances. However, while lockdowns may come and go, social distancing will be around for some time. If so, it likely will have longer term effects on our behaviours which will include our interactions with others. My expectation is that there will be some negative impats on social capital and some positive, but at least as important will be some deep-rooted changes in the ways that social bonds are made, reinforced, and broken.

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