Commentary

COVID-19 – social distancing reminds us to connect

By Sophie Marsden on 24 March 2020

‘On days when the sky is grey, the sun has not disappeared forever.’

– Arnaud Desjardin

 

The COVID-19 outbreak has put the UK, and indeed many parts of the world, on lockdown. As people are asked to distance themselves and self-isolate, there are growing concerns about how isolation will affect the elderly and vulnerable in our society. This forces us all to consider how much we value the most basic and mundane moments of connection, the everyday interactions, the services and routines that we may take for granted.

But from despondency comes hope, as people look for ways to maintain some form of social contact and a semblance of normality. In these troubling times, there have been many examples of human kindness, community action and people-centred innovation and it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how societies collectively respond in times of crisis.

We come together

The mutual aid movement has seen tens of thousands of people join local community efforts to help those most in need by delivering shopping and medicines, walking dogs or just being on the end of the phone for a chat. A UK wide initiative – COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK – is currently running the network, but community groups remain independent to support those that are vulnerable in their local community in the best way possible.

In amongst the panic buying of toilet roll and the stockpiling, there are numerous examples of positive local initiatives springing up across the country, such as the postcard campaign and the group of residents coming up with an alert card scheme. People are recognising that the most vulnerable in society may need a helping hand and are reaching out.

We recognise workers that we sometimes take for granted

Healthcare workers, delivery drivers, posties, care workers, supermarket employees… The list of those maintaining vital infrastructure and services during the COVID-19 crisis goes on. Until recently, some have been described as ‘unskilled’ workers, yet they now form the very foundations of our survival.

The NHS is the frontline of the fight back against the virus and is under major strain as hospitals fill up and staff put themselves at an increased risk. In times of crisis we realise not only how lucky we are to have a national health service, but also how reliant we are on everyday services that we may sometimes take for granted. It has been heartening to see the numerous expressions of gratitude on social media to those that provide these services. London restaurants and various food and drinks retailers are offering discounts to NHS workers and are switching their business models to provide delivery, and some hotels have made rooms available to healthcare workers for free.

We innovate

With many people working from home, there has been a huge increase in the use of online technology for holding meetings, teaching, managing work and internal and external communications. We rightly, often highlight the abusive and corrosive nature of social media, yet in these times social media has and will continue to play a huge role in connecting people. Online networks, groups and channels have been established, which bring people together to chat, share ideas and enjoy activities together virtually. A Facebook group, set up by one parent, has connected hundreds of thousands people around the globe to share fun tips and creative activity ideas for children that are out of school.

Not only does this show that technology is available to make this type of distance working possible, but it shows we as individuals, organisations and industries can adapt and innovate quickly. Indeed, getting my mother to FaceTime for the first time has proven to me that when it comes to technology and people – anything is possible.

We find our voice

One of my favourite examples of a community coming together during the crisis, has been the launch of the Sofa Singers.

Credit: The Sofa Singers , twitter.com/@swissmiss

Inspired by the Italian neighbourhood that took to its balconies to sing together, James Sills, a vocal leader living in North Wales, set up a virtual choir. He invited people from around the world to come together for a ‘simultaneous singalong’.

In fact there are many examples of uplifting online initiatives where people have found their voice, to spread a bit joy and feel more connected during difficult times.

What can we learn?

Since the Rapid Transition Alliance started in December 2018, we have shared 61 stories of change. It’s one of the features of our work that I particularly value and I feel lucky that it’s my job to read each one. Each story offers a little bit of hope that in times of crisis or need – be that the climate emergency or the current pandemic – we can adapt, learn and find positive solutions. It is interesting that whilst the stories vary in their scope, location, scale and context, one thing remains central to all these rapid transitions; they always have people and a desire for positive change at the centre.

Contributors

Sophie Marsden

Sophie provides communications support and manages the website at the Rapid Transition Alliance. She is a Communications Officer at the Institute of Development Studies and focuses primarily on the design and production of print and digital content.