Today marks a year since the first lockdown started. The challenges we’ve faced over the past 12 months and the way we have responded to them have taught us some fundamental truths about ourselves and our society.
What makes Covid-19 such a huge challenge is that it thrives on the very thing that makes life worthwhile: intimate human company. In order to avoid getting infected or infecting others, it has been necessary to maintain spatial distance from other people. But in doing so, we have discovered the cost of becoming socially distanced and the pain of isolation. Many of us have learned the hard way that being alone is seriously detrimental to our health.
By now, there are numerous studies, reviews of studies and even reviews of reviews that all point to the harmful effects of social isolation and help to explain what Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has called “the biggest hit to mental health since the second world war”. But the costs of isolation aren’t only mental. They are physical too. Loneliness may have a similar impact on mortality as smoking, drinking or obesity. The pain of being alone and feeling ignored by others is every bit as real as the pain of physical injury.
The loss of social connection during the pandemic has shown us the dangers of taking social relationships for granted. We are social animals and a sense of community is essential to our wellbeing. This is crucial to remember in our ever more atomised society, where social relationships are commodified and patients and students are regarded as “clients” and “consumers”. As the UK recovers from the pandemic, finding ways to build healthy social relationships should be a key part of addressing public health.
But even as it has distanced us from loved ones, the pandemic has also brought us closer together in other ways. At a street, neighbourhood and even national level, the shared experience of crisis has forged a greater sense of unity. As a groundbreaking body of new psychology has shown, a sense of belonging to communities can protect people against depression, improve cognition in older people, dramatically improve people’s health prospects on retirement and greatly improve recovery from heart attacks. Our membership of groups and communities is its own type of “social cure”.
The restorative role that community can play isn’t limited to preventing ill health. When people start thinking of themselves in terms of collective affiliations – as “we” rather than “I” – they begin to align their interests around what is good for their group, rather than only considering what is good for themselves as individuals. As the past year has shown us, they will even make sacrifices for this group – staying at home during lockdown in order to protect their wider community, for example.
As we begin to think of other people as part of our own extended group, we become more likely to help and support them. There has been a remarkable growth of social solidarity during the pandemic, with well over 4,000 mutual aid groups forming up and down the country and over 12 million people engaged in volunteering (of whom some 5 million were first-time volunteers). These groups have provided critical services that the state could never duplicate: checking to see if people are OK, delivering food, even walking the dog. In this flourishing of mutual aid, perhaps we can glimpse a new relationship between state and society, where the government neither acts as a paternalistic guardian nor abandons people to their own devices, but rather provides the resources and support to help communities self-organise.
Add these elements together, and we can see how community empowers people to cope with the greatest challenges. This explains one of the most striking and surprising aspects of the entire pandemic response. During the early days of Covid-19, government advisers feared that “behavioural fatigue” would render people incapable of abiding by the restrictions necessary to stop the spread of infection. Yet what we’ve found is entirely different. Although many have suffered acutely and most are tired of lockdown, the great majority have continued to adhere to regulations. Instead of individual fragility, what we have experienced is collective resilience.
But let us not overstate the case. While the pandemic has shown us much about the importance and power of community, we have also learned some more sombre truths about community’s limits. The most deprived people in our society have contributed most as key workers in the fight against Covid. They have also suffered the most as a result of this virus, in terms of both their health and wealth, and will likely pay the greatest costs during the recovery. There is a very real prospect that much like tuberculosis, Covid-19 will become a disease of poverty, confined to areas of deprivation where those who are affected are further stigmatised for their suffering.
If an inclusive idea of “us” creates solidarity and support, so the division of society into “us” and “them” – and still worse, the notion that “they” threaten “us” – can create hatred and oppression. The power of community is like that of dynamite. It can provide a basis for construction and connection, or can be used to destroy. In this pandemic we have seen its ability to do both. We have a choice as to which way we want to go next. The health of our society will depend upon it.