Alone together – How are people and communities adapting to living with coronavirus?

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds we are entering into a global societal experiment: what happens when we are collectively required to stay apart? What does it mean for people and communities, small and large, to share an experience of physical separation? 

This piece shares a large number of examples of how social norms and behaviours are shifting in response to the need to live with social distance, and questions the long term impact on expressions of community (1).

The immediate response

The spread of COVID-19 has triggered a rapidfire community response in countries around the world. Alongside the images of empty supermarket shelves, there are increasing numbers of examples of communities coming together to support each other through the crisis. Many expressions of prosocial behaviour have focused on the most severely impacted – people who are self-isolating because they are already sick or because they are most vulnerable.

Companies and shops are offering support with shopping and deliveries for people who are self- isolating. For example, in Ireland, a family-run grocery store offers to deliver shopping, while a hotel has set up a free dinner service.

Meanwhile, new groups are springing up across a variety of social media platforms to help neighbours and local communities coordinate how to support people in need. With daily active members increasing by 80% in March, Nextdoor is quickly rolling out new features to support people offering to help each other. In the UK, volunteers have set up a website to help people find local mutual aid groups in their area.

At the same time, the escalation of the coronavirus has led to exuberant expressions of solidarity around the globe, particularly from those under lockdown. Videos emerged from Wuhan province in China of high-rise residents shouting 'jiāyóu' from their balconies to one another, which translates as "add oil", meaning 'keep up the fight'. We then saw Italian apartment-dwellers keeping one another company by singing together from their balconies, while in Spain a fitness instructor led neighbours in a balcony workout routine. In Geneva, Switzerland, a ‘moment of noise’ was held one evening at 9pm – people took to their windows to applaud and bang pots and pans in a collective expression of gratitude towards health workers and sanitation teams leading the fight against the virus.

A sense of civic duty is further reinforced by social media sharing and the quickfire spread of memes around the internet across country borders – a viral response of a different kind. These acts of citizenship replicated in different countries are fostering a feeling of global togetherness. 

Adapting and setting new social norms

As the realities of social distancing set in, community responses are shifting to reframe the social sphere and set new norms around what is acceptable behaviour. 

Once normal social activities like playing football with friends or going to the pub, are being repositioned as negative and morally questionable. On social media, people use humour to shame and police each other’s behaviour.

In a Twitter video, comedian Nick Lehman sends up people who are going out to bars and posting about it on social media as “embarrassing”.

Meanwhile, another tweet humorously positions the reader as on the same ‘right’ side as a woman shouting at people for going outside, reinforcing the ethical dimensions of our new social boundaries. While some of the responses to the thread reveal how people are still struggling to shift and adapt their worldview to this new moral outlook.

As the possibility of keeping public spaces open dwindles, large scale social events are being reimagined through digital channels. Living rooms across Brooklyn turned into make-shift nightclubs as 100 people logged onto Zoom for a remote dance party, echoing scenes shared from China where cloud raves took place on TikTok. Religious institutions are stepping up their digital offerings, streaming services online as places of worship close. Musicians started performing online in place of cancelled concerts and now many more are taking to social media to stream free performances for their fans. The global bar chain Mikkeller has opened a new location: in cyberspace.

People are also finding new ways to socialise in private with loved ones. Friends and family are gathering via video conferencing tools to spend time together; the term ‘on-nomi’ has been coined in Japan to describe online drinking. The Netflix party Chrome extension has existed for several years but is experiencing renewed interest in recent weeks.

Business as not-normal

Local businesses have started to move beyond simply supporting people who are self-isolating to developing creative solutions to stay afloat and keep up normal activities. For example, an independent bookshop in east London has closed its doors and moved to hand-delivering books to customers.

While specific responses may be first prototyped locally, the internet quickly leads to successful ideas and innovations spreading between communities and countries. In Berlin a trend has started for supporting independent restaurants and cafes by buying vouchers to use at a future date. Germany is a few days ahead of the UK in terms of the virus’ spread, but as restaurants start to close in London the same behaviours are emerging.

What might the future hold? 

As it looks increasingly likely that we will be living with social distancing for a long period of time, how will the impact of COVID19 continue to shape how people connect? 

It’s possible we could see a deepening of global social connection. According to the social identity model of collective resilience (2), shared social identity is formed between people who experience a disaster, and this often leads to prosocial behaviour. Research into national identity conducted before and after a severe 2010 earthquake in Chile showed that people displayed a stronger sense of national identity after the earthquake. The coronavirus is a disaster with an unprecedented global reach – few communities will remain untouched by the pandemic. Can we imagine a new collective identity forged across borders and cultural divisions?

At the same time, there is a very real risk of a social recession: where the sharp reduction in social contact hits hardest those already isolated and lonely. While we’ve seen inspiring solidarity and inventive short term adaptations, will we really adjust to a social life led mostly online, once the novelty of online happy hour wears thin? Can virtual connection ever truly stand in for the physical, and what technological innovation will we see that helps us cope through the long months ahead?

Amidst all these questions, the one certainty is that the meaning and experience of community will change in ways that we can’t yet imagine. Community AC will probably not look like community BC. 

// Cath Richardson, Erin Hackett

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(1) A note – this piece was written last week before more stringent physical distancing measures were enforced in much of Europe and parts of the US. We still feel it is worth publishing as a snapshot of how we have seen people and communities responding over the last few weeks. We'll continue to track how these behaviours evolve as the crisis unfolds.

(2) Drury, J. (2012) Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: A social identity model. In J. Jetten, C. Haslam, & S. A. Haslam (Eds.), The social cure:: Identity, health and well-being (pp. 195-215). Hove and New York: Psychology Press.