Social distancing and solidarity

Justine Toh on the decline of community, religion and social capital, and how COVID-19 may help us discover that we're better together.

‘Social distancing’, I predict, will be 2020’s Oxford Word of the Year.

Maybe it’s foolish to make that call, especially in a year when everyone’s plans have gone down the gurgler, along with all that soapy water we’ve scrubbed our hands with many, many times.

But what else could sum up these strange days of 2020 other than the official name for staying away from others so as not to spread COVID-19.

Which is all rather ironic since humans are groupish. We gather as soccer players and comic book fans. (Maybe even as soccer-playing comic book fans.) We form political parties and sing in choirs. We congregate—it’s what we do. While social distancing is critical right now, it goes against the grain of our natures.

Even so, we’ve trended towards social distancing in a cultural sense long before COVID-19. Robert Putnam of Harvard University wrote ‘Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community’ which tracked, since 1950, declining forms of community life. Even bowling leagues dwindled—hence the title.

But religion, Putnam found, was a major source of social capital: the social glue that sticks people together. The faithful shouldn’t rejoice just yet; this had less to do with the content of belief so much as the context religion provided for strong community to form.

Obviously, we want to ‘flatten the curve’ so we’ll continue social distancing. But I’m in far more contact with people right now than I would’ve been otherwise. How about you? We might have become more disconnected in recent decades, but an unexpected boon of these difficult times—and they will get worse, no doubt—might be the rediscovery that we are better together.

Here’s hoping, then, that social distancing gives way to greater solidarity.