Written by Kat Wheeler
Like many introverts across the world, my first reaction to being ordered to stay inside was one of euphoric disbelief. Ten months later, the stark reality has well and truly set in.
After a long year of political hostility, social change and dystopian realities, the need to feel connected is stronger than ever. Whilst a significant percentage of the population have moved back into their family homes, there are still large numbers of people without the same support system and who lack everyday human interaction. Around my local area, the number one request volunteer hubs received from residents was simply for a ‘quick chat’.
Lockdown has revealed uncomfortable truths about society’s most vulnerable, many of whom live in houses unfit for purpose. ‘Working-age adults’, particularly those in rental accomodation, were the most likely to report loneliness during the first lockdown (ONS). Key workers too faced long hours and many NHS staff had to isolate away from their families. Some are still taking these same precautions.
Thanks to the efforts of a few, you can now enjoy virtual Yoga via Zoom, take a class on opera singing in your bedroom and even solve a murder mystery. Though companies have adapted to demand, there’s still a big problem: time and money. Almost all virtual events are scheduled and, unlike a pre-pandemic world, it’s hard to pop in and out. In-demand key workers are working longer, more stressful hours with a potential incoming pay freeze (BBC). The fact is that even virtual interaction costs money, so does having an internet connection and a device to connect with.
Perhaps going forward, a different approach is needed. Spaces where people can interact whilst maintaining a low risk of virus transmission, free and flexible virtual events, wi-fi and an electronic device as standard for every home.
One proposed solution is ‘co-living’, large hotel-like complexes built to be shared by strangers. The Collective in London seems to be bucking this trend: residents rent a room on a flexible contract and get access to a wealth of community spaces including cinemas and swimming pools. There are classes each week run by those living inside and built-in communal areas for residents to connect and catch-up (GUA). As rent goes, it’s a little pricey, but co-living might be a step in the right direction. For working-age adults, particularly those who have struggled in lockdown, having the opportunity to make new connections could lead to less loneliness in future.
In the short term, there are smaller steps being made towards connecting people but progress is slow. For example, the Department of Education’s ‘Get Help With Tech’ scheme (MSE) aims to provide lower income families with free broadband. However, it is unclear how to apply and the details of who qualifies are vague. A more beneficial scheme might be to offer devices with data on ‘loan’ so those without connection can, for a short time and a low price, access education and speak to others.
On an even smaller scale, making virtual events longer and more suited to ‘drop-ins’ could enable those that work longer and more awkward hours to meet new people. This is worth bearing in mind in a (hopefully) pandemic-less world too. Where illness still exists and visiting others may feel daunting, the digital skills we have learned as a nation will make it easier to see others, even when we don’t live with them.