Norfolk, UK

The words below are my personal perspectives and not the views of any organisation I may be seen to represent. They were also written without any verified data and therefore contain potentially inaccurate assumptions.

Alongside the uncertainty created by CV-19, a more long-lasting and potentially deeper issue is occurring. The changing way our social networks are formed, used and closed.

Work provides purpose. It also provides, for many, a sense of community and social interaction. Even those people who would claim to be introverts, they often need some sort of contact with people that they know they can get with a degree of regularity. For those who are extroverts, the social need is obviously much higher. 

If you are not in work then you will most probably have various social groups you belong to. For the vast majority of people not in work, i.e. the retired population, these social groups provide the post-work purpose they need as well as a level of social contact. The retired are fortunate in that they can choose the sort of purpose and social contact they want – it therefore typically means more to them one might suggest.

The early days of CV-19 were treated with interest and concern. News reports highlighted the way in which China dealt with it and how they took what some considered to be far-reaching steps to deal with the problem. The building of a hospital in ten days was astonishing, the lockdown of key cities never seen before in such a way. In other parts of the world, people look on amazed but also with a sense of detachment. The problem was over there and not over here. The development of the virus in Italy brought things much closer to home and as life started to be constrained with Government announcements such as asking people to work from home, reduce social contact, closing pubs and schools, the enormity of the situation hit people. Concern and worry set in. The uncertainty was driving both anxiety and fear. People’s social networks were stopping. What would they do?

Take the story of a woman in her forties who had worked for the same organisation for a number of years, in the same building, in pretty much the same team. She was an early isolator and for her working from home was possible. It had its benefits, the dog at her feet, the absence of a commute and some more flexibility. However, the habits she had of conversing with her team, seeing the facial reactions close to her and the impromptu banter was missing. Her social networks were changing. Change is always difficult no matter how it is done. Having changes forced on you quickly is hard, even though the reason is obvious and clear.

A grandfather lives close to his offspring, his grown-up children have children of their own who rely on the grandparent for some child-care responsibilities. This is very common and provides enjoyment and social benefit to all three generations. Suddenly pulling this away because of the health risks can be seen as traumatic. The younger generations want to care for the older ones. The older ones might be less worried about their own health and want to continue to help their families. It can be hard for them to understand why things really need to change. They don’t want to burden the NHS and this altruistic view may be what finally creates a different behaviour. But it is not easy and the grandfather misses his grandchildren. A key part of his social network has physically gone, almost overnight.

An elderly woman lives on her own; both her children lead their own lives and stay in regular contact but she relies on other social groups to supplement her social needs and keep her fit and active. Over the course of a few days, these social networks stop. The threat of the virus is too much and she hibernates at the start of the spring. She worries about the physical health of others and about her own emotional and mental health. There is little uncertainty in her mind that this will be a difficult time. It might make it easier if it had a clear end, but the path for the next few months is unknown and unwelcome. 

The technology worker in his thirties has two children and is time-poor. The opportunity to do far more work from home seems very attractive. There is the shed to organise, the spare room to paint and the vegetables in the garden to plant. He is strongly advocating social distancing at work to promote the move to home working but ironically is quite happy to stand in line in the supermarket to ensure he buys enough for what might come next, to queue in the DIY shop for paint and to enjoy one last session with the lads on the Friday night before the pub shuts for an indefinite period. The reality of the kids being at home all day and in need of some attention, the increased work demands and knowledge that he can’t get his own time when he needs it becomes clear. He has to work out how to balance these new and different social environments and make some sense of it.

The classic theory of change talks about loss and the way people adapt. In the case of CV-19, it is relatively sudden and multifaceted. Life is changing considerably and people don’t have control. Acceptance to the new world will come, but how do we speed it up and see the benefits of working differently. There are many questions and many solutions. Finding the right ones that personally fit will be a challenge we all have.

There are key things to consider…

What is the new sense of purpose to people’s lives? Many will not have thought about this for some time and will find the very activity of it hard. Purpose can also be seen as grandiose, something for those who have socially or financially important roles, when the reality is simple – how will people fill their time and how will they socially connect? So, what is your purpose to yourself, your family, your neighbour, your friends? What are you doing for them?

How are old social networks continued but in a different way? What will people have to learn in order to do this? The ability to use technology is easy for some and difficult for others. No longer can people post on social media the things they have done outside of the home, they have to look at what they have done inside the home. The foundations are the social networks that exist already, the questions are: how will the fabric of them adjust? Who will take a lead to change the format from physical presence to online/ telephone meetings? Where one person leads, others will follow, even in social groups that are not adjusted to this way of being.

Being able to have humour about the situation eases tension and worry. A laugh a day will keep the doctor away. It is interesting to hear radio stations asking for listeners to ring in with jokes, to see the early home workers having fun with a hand puppet or the gags online about focusing on work whilst the kids trash the house in the background. 

We are all creatures of some sort of habit. These are being washed away by a tsunami of temporary and maybe permanent change. Those that recover best will create some new habits, never minding if they will be temporary or permanent, just doing it. Those new habits might consist of doing some sort of exercise in the morning instead of the daily commute, of cooking with raw ingredients from local shops rather than the ready meals from a supermarket or extending the working day to much later but taking chunks of time out of the day to give the kids some attention. What we all choose to do is up to us. Some people are inevitably more positive than others. For those who are able, it is time to take on some different responsibilities and act with consideration for others.

For further information

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