The novel coronavirus pandemic, or COVID-19, has forced many of us inside our homes and asked of us to do something that does not come naturally to most human beings: stay away from each other. While social distancing- as it has come to be known- is crucial for curbing the spread of the virus and easing the pressure on our overburdened health system, it carries great potential for psycho-social harm. This unwelcome experience of physical isolation may impact on our mental health and relationships in ways that will become clearer as we near the end of the nation-wide lockdown.

Human beings are social creatures and typically strive to build connections rather than retreat into individualism or isolation. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded that we suppress a part of this hard-wired impulse for connection in the interest of safeguarding ourselves and others. It has pressured us to commune differently and explore new ways of building and strengthening our communities. And it has challenged us to activate the healing powers of our existing communities to fend off fear, isolation and loneliness.

There are varying definitions of the term, ‘community’ depending on the thematic focus, but the term is typically understood as, “a social unit with commonality, such as norms, religion, values, customs or identity.” Communities are typically marked by sustained interaction and support and the development of bonds of belonging. Each one of us belongs to a community- in fact we belong to several communities because we carry within us multiple identities, interests, and lived experiences. These communities are often our source of strength and enhance our capacity for resilience and resistance, all of which are necessary to avoid catastrophic collapse.

Interestingly, geographical location is less frequently considered an important attribute of community as more people flock to social media platforms to build connections. As technology advances and access to it widens, social media has become an increasingly important tool for communication, connection and community-building. And as South Africans journey through the 21 days of physical isolation, digital and social media will play a progressively central role in how we commune with one another. More than ever, we can all benefit from developing digital habits that support meaningful human connection.

It is important to note that while communities can be a resource for connection and support, it can also prohibit us from connecting and understanding communities dissimilar to our own. In a heterogeneous country, like South Africa, where our history and present are marked by violence and divisions, how do we build and strengthen the cohesiveness of our communities during a time of crisis? This is a pertinent question that many working in civil society are grappling with as the crisis persists and physical distance is enforced. There can be no peace meals, no empathy drives and no inter and intra-group dialogues that allow for us to be in one space- to share our stories authentically, to feel and carry one another’s emotions, or to sense one another’s fears and vulnerabilities in ways that close proximity allows for. Instead, we are increasingly resigned to watch one another on the news and social media and judge each other’s actions and behaviours without full comprehension of the fears, paranoia or ignorance that informs it. In this, more room is opened for other-ing, exclusion, and individualistic practices.

COVID-19 is an unfortunate addition to already existing struggles and divisions in our country, and it has triggered trauma responses of fear, distrust and pain. These trauma responses have manifested themselves in stockpiling, Sinophobia, flagrant displays of exceptionalism and individualism, and fear-mongering. But the collective trauma we experience necessitates collective healing, and in order to heal, we need to co-operate with one another. In order to better co-operate we must communicate across our varying communities in ways that allow for the sharing, listening and empathetic holding of all our stories. This is no easy task in a country whose behaviour often runs away from connecting with those who are different from us, but it can be achieved. If we collectively utilise this time in isolation as an opportunity to reflect on who we are as diverse community of people, and imagine new, improved ways of navigating our relationships with one another, we can begin not only to commune with one another, but capacitate each other with the necessary resilience needed to overcome the pandemic.

We need to fundamentally shift the ways we have interacted with different communities and groups in a way that fosters mutual understanding, compassion and healing in a similar way as was done during the Ebola crisis of 2013-2016. During the Ebola epidemic in West and Central Africa, for example, communities understood the magnitude of the epidemic and bounded together to overcome the stigma associated with the virus. They supported one another to recover from the psychological, physical and economic impact of the Ebola outbreak, and as people’s attitudes and behaviour with one another changed, the epidemic abated. An important lesson to be taken from communities’ response to the Ebola virus is that co-operation is crucial to overcoming a pandemic and it is important that we nurture it for the common good. It is important that we call in others and show to them that their individual and communal actions can monumentally impact the communities they are both part of and not.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and altered the patterns of our behaviours and cultural practices in similar ways as the Ebola crisis in Liberia and elsewhere. It has called us to re-think how it is that we commune with one another and how we can build more socially cohesive communities.

Communities are not stagnant, but undergo a sustained process of formation and reformation in response to ever-changing domestic and global conditions. By extension, the traditions held and practiced by communities develop in correspondence to the political, economic and ecological shifts of the times. These newly developed traditions are then accepted and passed on because the people who practice them live improved lives. The evolution of social behaviours and practices has already begun in small, but powerful ways- observing physical space, not traveling, and conducting team and business meetings on Zoom, or having Friday sundowners over WhatsApp. As time continues, the COVID-19 will demand that we learn new habits and adopt new behaviours that will primarily safeguard us from harm, and, also, present the opportunity to learn new ways of human-ing and communing with one another.

The COVID-19 has vividly demonstrated to us that human connection can spread illness. But it is important to remember that human connection can, also, spread wellness.

Danielle Hoffmeester is a project officer in the Sustained Dialogues programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. 

Article first published on The Daily Vox