Impact of social distancing on our connectivity
It is difficult to imagine the sheer volume of suffering unleashed across the world as a result of the global pandemic known as Coronavirus (COVID-19). Little did the wider world expect that from a few isolated cases of a new virus appearing in Wuhan, China in late 2019 that life as we all knew it would change immeasurably in such a short time.
In January 2020, I travelled from the UK to Nepal to prepare to begin my studies at Kathmandu University. At this point in time, the virus was still in its infancy and whilst it was increasingly being discussed worldwide within the media, the numbers of the infected were still relatively small. In fact, at this point in time there was only one known case of COVID-19 in Nepal and that person was said to have recovered.
So, life in Kathmandu carried on as normal. I attended lectures at the University and thrived in the hustle and bustle that is the backdrop to life in Kathmandu.
However, this was not to last. The spread of the virus was relentless and on March 24, 2020, Nepal entered a period of lockdown. Suddenly businesses were forced to close, traffic was stopped, schools and universities closed, and everyone was told to stay home. Life in Kathmandu changed in a single stroke.
Large and potentially fatal epidemics always present challenges to the normal workings of society. The global disruption COVID-19 has caused to daily life, routines and connections has exposed the precariousness of many things we all take for granted.The impact of lockdown on businesses and livelihoods is well documented, but what is talked less is the psychological impact on people’s wellbeing of being told to isolate themselves and ‘stay at home’.
We all have a fundamental need to belong in our communities and to maintain close relationships with others and the failure to fulfil such needs, particularly in the long term, could lead to significant physical and psychological harm. There have already been reports of increased numbers of suicides and reported mental health problems in Nepal during the initial lockdown stage, showing us that the problems being faced by people as a result of the pandemic are far from superficial.
Interacting with each other, either to socialise, work or for the general functioning of everyday society is so important for our wellbeing, and supports our sense of social cohesion and belonging. The pandemic and the social distancing measures put into place to stop it have forced us to rethink how we understand our communities and how we interact with each other. Social cohesion within communities arises out of solidarity with each other, either materially, or through shared beliefs but also through this recognised interdependency.
In short, we need each other. Given this need we as human beings have to interact together when faced with the lack of social contact created by lockdown and social distancing people have found ways to adapt and create new channels of communication. However, it cannot be assumed that these are useful or accessible to all and therefore it is important to consider how these new ways of interacting are affecting different individuals and communities.
In this era of technology many of us are fortunate enough to be able to connect virtually with our families, friends and colleagues to maintain our social relationships and everyday connections.Where the technology exists, or allows, work is now being done from home. Students are studying online, and people are using virtual platforms to communicate more than ever. For some people key elements of their lives are carrying on, if not normally, at least in a not too damaging way. However, the reality will be very different for many others.
Whilst it is so important for our wellbeing that we keep our connections alive socially, if we cannot do this physically, we must be aware that the lack of access to technology particularly within rural or economically disadvantaged parts of the world may exacerbate an already significant digital divide. Not everyone has ready access to technology and the lockdown and social distancing requirements will have disproportionally affected those economically disadvantaged communities who will have fewer alternatives (like replacing face to face activities with technology) at their disposal. The danger is that this will increase poverty, and further deepen inequalities and social discrimination within our society.
So with all these new measures in place to restrict in-person interactions and tactile experience, what kinds of human sociality can we anticipate to be evolving? The simple answer is: it depends on how long the COVID-19 outbreaks are going to last. If the current public health measures are going to continue, it is very likely that the nature of our one-on-one interactions will also undergo long-term dramatic transformations with damaging consequences for many.
However, what is becoming clear is that these virtual communities and ways of communicating are not an adequate substitute for being able to gather and interact with those around us. The increase in mental health and anxiety disorders, loneliness and isolation seen here in Nepal, and across the globe indicates that our local communities are more important to us than they have recently been given credit for.
It appears that other people will always be the most important thing in our lives, and in the same way that our ancestors could not have survived without being part of a physical community, neither can we.
The writer is a UK National studying MPhil in Development Studies at Kathmandu University.
Published on 5 July 2020