'Lean in to social connections' during COVID-19 pandemic, experts advise

Cultivating more social cohesion among Canadians at a time when public health officials across the country are urging people to stay away from each other amounts to an “enormous social experiment,” writer and thinker Thomas Homer-Dixon told CBC Radio’s The House.

How can citizens come together in a time of crisis?

A street sign advising to practise social distancing is pictured along in North Vancouver amid the coronavirus pandemic. Despite calls from public health officials to increase social distancing measures, some experts say meaningful social connections are more important now than ever. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Cultivating more social cohesion among Canadians at a time when public health officials across the country are urging people to stay away from each other amounts to an "enormous social experiment," writer and thinker Thomas Homer-Dixon told CBC Radio's The House.

"We've never tried anything like this before, where physically we can't be close, but emotionally and socially, we have to draw together," said Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, in a pre-recorded interview airing Saturday.

Social cohesion — the sense of connection and solidarity between groups in society — has been put to the test by the coronavirus pandemic and urgent warnings from public health officials to practice social distancing.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends staying away from crowded places and large gatherings of people, avoiding handshakes and hugs, and keeping a distance of at least two metres from others when in public.

'Physical distancing and social closening'

But social distancing also means staying home as much as possible, shopping during off-peak hours and shifting work and other social activities to the virtual world, instead of face-to-face.

"I wish we had called it 'physical distancing' instead of 'social distancing' from the beginning, because what we need to do is physical distancing and social closening. We need to lean in to social connections more than usual," said Amanda Ripley, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who wrote The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why.

Ripley said anxiety, uncertainty and loneliness have been widespread for some time, but the current pandemic could worsen those issues for some people.

"We know these things are measurably bad for your health, just like smoking," she said.

But she said that, as with other disasters, the pandemic is triggering a natural inclination for people to draw close and for neighbours to pull together.

"While there is a real probability that for some people, particularly the elderly, people who were already isolated, this problem could grow worse, there's a corresponding countermovement — which is people want to come together, people want to be helpful, people want something to do," she said.

"As long as we seize that opportunity, there is an opportunity to actually connect more than we normally do.

Abbis Mahmoud is the owner of Dreammind Group, a collection of Ottawa restaurants. He's bought $45,000 in mostly non-perishable food from his suppliers and is donating it to seniors and other vulnerable people affected by COVID-19 social distancing measures. (Andrew Craig)

Social distancing could last for months, not weeks

But what happens when the novelty of working from home wears off and the public begins to chafe at all the recommended restrictions?

A sobering report from Britain's Imperial College London released this week suggested that preventing COVID-19 cases from overwhelming health care systems could require people to respect social distancing guidelines for months, not weeks.

That conclusion was based on models of COVID-19's spread through the United States and the United Kingdom, but the researchers said their findings apply to other countries as well.

"To avoid a rebound in transmission, these policies will need to be maintained until large stocks of vaccine are available to immunize the population – which could be 18 months or more," the report says.

The longer this drags on, Homer-Dixon said, the more the strain on society will grow.

"As people become weary of this, as their resources start to run out and they start to become very scared, that could tread a lot of the social capital in our societies and lead to enormous problems," he said.

"It's not so much about the next few weeks. My concern is where we are in April, May or June if this process has to continue," he said.

Helping others to pass the time

For now, Ripley said she is trying to do four things each day to help pass the time during this crisis.

She is exercising more than she normally would to work out stress and boost her immune system. She's also meditating, talking on the phone to one or two people and doing at least one good deed for someone else, whether it's fetching groceries for a housebound neighbour or donating money to a charity.

"We can all withdraw and become more and more isolated and suspicious or we can do the opposite, and that's a choice we can make," she said.