The streets of Brooklyn are eerily quiet, even with increasing spring-like temperatures. The government has declared a national emergency. Citizens are being told to quarantine themselves and their families in their homes. Schools, museums, Disney parks, and even Broadway shows are shut down amidst the novel coronavirus outbreak, officially termed COVID-19. As the current crisis unfolds across this country, and around the world, the typical first human instinct is to fold inward — to protect those closest and hunker down for the long haul. But we must resist this urge. We must be proactive in our efforts to connect with others, even as officials order social distancing. If we don’t, this tragedy unfolding before our eyes will be far worse.
As a social being who’s been called “the serial connector," I know that human beings thrive on connection. Growing up, I witnessed my parents doing social media years before the Internet was invented — consistently sending articles to friends via U.S. mail and letting folks know they were on their mind. As I've grown older, people have referred to me as the female version of Kevin Bacon, and I'm currently writing a book titled, "The Art of Connecting, out next spring. It also surprises many people that I have run my company remotely for the last seven years. But my business, McPherson Strategies, a communications firm that focuses on corporate responsibility and social impact, has never suffered from telecommuting, and I’ve built an incredibly collaborative, tight-knit team.
With the rapidly spreading COVID-19, and its uncertainty, it’s imperative that we keep our distance from one other and follow what medical experts are prescribing. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be gathering together — virtually, outdoors while six-feet apart, on the phone, online — in every way that we possibly can. We need each other right now, and while social distancing is paramount, it doesn’t require isolation. What these times call for is remote connecting.
The technology currently available to us would be unfathomable to those who suffered during past pandemics, so now is the time to take advantage of it. More Americans live alone than ever before (28% of households), and according to the Health Resources and Services Administration, there is a 45% increased chance of mortality among seniors who report feeling lonely. Loneliness is also connected to several health issues, and it may play a role in substance abuse and can diminish overall quality of life. A 2017 Cigna study found that 46% of U.S. adults report sometimes or always feeling lonely, and 47% report feeling left out. Cigna calls those "epidemic levels." Ages ranged from teens through the elderly, so this is not just a problem for older adults.
So if we were already at “epidemic levels” of loneliness before the coronavirus pandemic, imagine how many people are feeling the negative effects of it now. And what might that look like two weeks from now, or further into the future if things don't improve quickly? Here’s how we can do our best to avoid deepening the crisis of loneliness during this global emergency.
Reach out to your colleagues and friends
Ask them how you can help. What do they need? Do they have children who are home from school going stir crazy? What game or project can you send them or deliver that might give them a few hours of peace? Can you entertain them over Zoom or Google Hangout by reading a book? Offer to do some errands for parents of young children who do not have childcare. Send a pizza (bonus: order from a local shop whose business is likely hurting right now). Bake a cake or casserole for your neighbor or co-worker.
Use the damn telephone
We rarely actually use our smartphones as, well, phones. When you’re stuck inside all day, hearing a friend or family member’s voice can truly brighten your day. Make a list of people to call each day, and allow yourself to enjoy the lost art of long phone conversations where you ramble on about whatever’s on your minds. If phone calls aren’t your thing, shoot a text or email to your friends, family and colleagues to check in. In these lonely times, a simple, “hello, I’m thinking of you” can go a long way.
Gather your friends for video dates
Between Zoom, Skype, Facebook Live, and Google Hangouts, there’s no shortage of platforms. You can even have virtual dinner parties. One person can host, choose the topic, and share a recipe for the whole group to make. To expand the group, each person could be responsible for bringing one new person to each gathering. This coming Monday, I'm joining a virtual happy hour with eight friends over Zoom. We're each coming with our favorite beverage and our picks for the most riveting streaming shows on Netflix.
Check out the online communities you belong to, and dive into the discussions
These could be on Facebook, LinkedIn, WhatsApp or just common listservs built on Google mail. I’m a member of several listservs, which are currently buzzing with ideas, suggestions, and, honestly, therapy and love. Reading the contributions heartens one’s soul. One of my favorite email discussions this week featured a collective discussion on fear and just how truly scared we are, but must suppress it to “remain strong” for our families and our co-workers. On this particular listserv, there is no need to hide that raw terror, so it’s cathartic for all involved. One member shared: “I think it’s my role to create calm and be reassuring to my community. Which is why I feel safe to freak out here.” We can be truly authentic and vulnerable with each other. Another is focusing on how we can be sure individuals have access to medical care during the coronavirus outbreak, which we know is increasingly becoming challenging in this country. And yet another is focused on civic engagement. One member wrote, “I've been in conversation with a bunch of the national organizing networks and starting to talk with funders about how we support community organizing and voter engagement groups to make their own choices about whether to continue knocking on doors to help elect candidates for the 2020 elections. — a bunch of us are thinking this could be a good opportunity for them to strengthen their digital organizing chops in case canvassing is halted.”
Take care of yourself
If you don't take care of yourself, all of the connections in the world won't do any good. When I was homebound while recovering from a recent surgery, I found Tara Brach’s meditation app to be calming and soothing. Whether it’s a meditation app like Calm or Headspace, home yoga with Glo, Asana Rebel or Gaia, an online fitness class, or even the Metropolitan Opera live streams at 7:30 p.m EST. These are all ways you can take care of yourself with plenty of virtual encouragement.
I have lived alone for the last five years. The ideas above have helped me feel less isolated and alone, and now that we’re entering uncharted territories, perhaps they can help others cope. Being quarantined, self-isolating, or following an order to “shelter in place,” doesn’t equate to loneliness." Just look at how neighbors in Italy came together to sing from their balconies, and in Spain, they exercised together from their rooftops. The human spirit very much thrives on connection. While “social distancing” may seem like a lonely and frightening premise, let’s reframe it to “remote connecting” and perhaps you’ll see it as an opportunity of a lifetime to reconnect with the world and those who truly matter.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.