How COVID-19 is changing the way that Canadians interact with each other
In a recent poll conducted by ICC and Leger, respondents were asked the following question: “Compared to before COVID-19 began, do you feel more or less connected with your family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, community, city, province, country?” Responses were mixed. Overall, 29 per cent of Canadians said they felt more connected to their family, but they also felt less connected to friends and their broader community since COVID-19 began.
These results make sense as more people remain indoors, many with their families, and engage less often with those outside their home. But they also seem to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the social bonds that connect Canadians to one another, which could have a lasting impact not only on individuals but on society as a whole.
In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam uses the term “social capital” to describe the process by which networks of people work together to accomplish shared goals or pursue shared interests. Putnam argues that our ability and willingness to gather in groups can have an effect on things like civic engagement and democratic participation. Coming together is a way to build trust, strengthen social ties, and advance community needs, and could include group participation in anything from parent teacher organizations to churches to Scout troops.
By some measures, Canada fares relatively well in this area. Before the pandemic began, a 2019 report from the World Bank found that Canada ranked high in terms of social capital compared to other countries. And 2013 data from Statistics Canada found that social capital had stayed relatively stable over the 10-year period between 2003 and 2013, with 65 per cent of Canadians participating as members of a group, organization, or association, and nearly half participating in group activities at least once a month.
At the same time, other research has shown that loneliness has been on the rise in Canada and voter turnout has also declined since the 1970s, suggesting that social ties and civic engagement are not quite as strong as they could be.
When it comes to COVID-19, existing social capital can be an important asset to individuals and communities. Research has found that it is especially beneficial during disasters, since social networks become more important when our lives are strained by economic hardship, illness, or widespread disruptions.
Recent protests may point to a positive shift when it comes to social capital in Canada, as thousands of people gathered all over the country to work toward the shared goal of combating racism, systemic discrimination, and police violence. Despite the risks involved in congregating in large groups during a pandemic, the World Health Organization has come out in support of the protests. Many public health officials have acknowledged that the protests represent an “essential” form of public gathering; they are directly related to the structural racism putting Black, Indigenous, and racialized groups at greater risk during the pandemic, resulting in significantly higher rates of COVID-19 related infection and deaths in these communities.
In this way, social capital is at once strained and more focused in this particular moment as people are forced to watch the inequalities already present in their country continue to widen. Frank Roberts, an NYU professor and expert on U.S. social movements like Black Lives Matter told the BBC: “You have a situation where the entire country is on lockdown, and more people are inside watching TV…more people are being forced to pay attention — they’re less able to look away, less distracted.” In a sense, this is exactly what social capital is about: turning attention away from individuals and toward social systems and group needs.
Another question asked in the ICC/Leger poll was whether Canadians believed that the COVID-19 crisis would “bring diverse communities in Canada closer together.” The poll found that more Canadians felt that the crisis would bring together diverse communities (43 per cent) than those who did not (32 per cent), with the remainder stating that they were unsure. Canadians of colour agreed more frequently with this statement than white Canadians, and younger Canadians were more hopeful than older Canadians.
The widespread protests from St. John’s to Vancouver in support of anti-racism action can be considered a positive indication that the desire to come together to pursue shared goals remains strong among Canadians. Meanwhile, thanks to physical distancing measures and high adherence to shutdown rules, Canadians have managed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections and new cases across the country remain relatively low.
In the coming months — and, perhaps, years — communities will likely face even greater challenges as the economic fallout and disruptions to our day-to-day lives continue. But if the past few months are any indication, we have plenty to be hopeful for when it comes to the state of social capital in Canada.