Collecting COVID-19

‘Responses to social isolation’: Summaries of contributions

Question Two: Responses to Social Isolation

‘Anthropological Responses to COVID-19’ will comprise six questions, each lasting a fortnight. These are posted on the ‘Collecting COVID’ website, created by University College London’s Centre for Digital Anthropology.

All of the contributions to the second topic can be found by clicking on the map here.

Please note that countries such as the Netherlands or Israel are slightly less visible on the map due to their smaller size – the countries are clickable, however, and a link to the Israeli contribution can also be found in the text. In addition, pages dedicated to specific countries may have more than one entry.

What have anthropological observations taught us about individual and community responses to social isolation? The 28 posts we have received so far cover wide-ranging topics from looking after children with disabilities to the role of artists or the effects on religious practice. Perhaps the main finding is that social isolation and lockdown does not result in the breakdown or break up of the community. Instead, it reminds people of their relationship to the community and the value of it. It may help justify community leaders who have always asserted these values. The communities may be at national, ethnic, local or another level. As with traditional communities, they may also be exclusionary and turn against others who they blame for their problems. For younger people, it seems more common that social media is, in effect, their community. For them, lockdown may be a more natural extension of and dependence upon this online world. A third element is the rise of the stranger to stranger charitable work which people hope will be retained as the basis for community information in the future.

Anthropological posts that are not directed to these questions can also be found at https://anthrocovid.com/digital-ethnographies/ and from posts from UCL Medical Anthropology at https://medanthucl.com/

Some of the other key points and themes emerging from these posts are as follows:

1) The consequences of social isolation are generally highly unequal. People who were struggling or had specific needs may suffer most and be difficult to support, despite community initiatives to assist them.

2) Social isolation and lockdown also reveal the capacity of online to become a means for maintaining and expanding sociality, rather than self-absorbed attention to screens. Often the possibility of online health support or board games existed, but the lockdown has been the catalyst for actually taking up these opportunities.

3) At the individual level, the sheer break from routine may lead people to reassess aspects of their lives, find new occupations or different priorities. Sometimes, priorities such as food scarcity are simply a given.

4) Social isolation also leads to a kind of explosion of creativity which is quite democratised as everyone feels they can contribute fun or original ideas of how to keep amused, occupied and socially connected.

5) The experience of social isolation has to be seen as relative to the way social life operated previously. For some, there is continuity, for others considerable rupture. People try to make sense of the crisis by relating it to previous categories or experiences.

6) Social isolation also leads to a greater awareness of the value of charity and support for others. Apart from established communities, this may involve new stranger-to-stranger philanthropic initiatives. The most common manifestation is support for health workers.

What are individual contributions telling us about how people find and share information about the pandemic locally? 

ArgentinaXimena Díaz Alarcón compares the experience of teens and seniors. The shift to such dependence upon online is not necessarily easier for young people. They may be more fluent, but they may also be more prone to fear and tensions, or a sense of what they are missing, whether education or parties. Seniors are more concerned about being singled out as vulnerable or showing support for health workers. They may also be the ones organising protests on social media.

Argentina (2) – The issue for Victoria Irisarri is what happens to night-time party sociability? For a Zoom party, there is still plenty of body and behaviour discipline around dressing up, dancing and drinking, as people try to overcome isolation through their screen, assisted by party promoters. Anthropologists should consider what kind of mediation is a zoom party?

Brazil (1)Eliza Williamson reports on a WhatsApp support group for disabled children, mostly between 3 and 5 years old, disabled by the Zika virus. The parents, often with low incomes,  are now unable to connect to many vital resources as hospital trips become riskier, and therapy and treatments unavailable. Under quarantine conditions, social media becomes even more important for sharing tips and resources and organise assistance for those in need.

Brazil (2) – Andrea Rozenbaum examines the role of online board games. As with many of the examples, the capacity was already there, but social isolation has become the catalyst for people to actually adopt the online alternatives to traditional board games, often adding a voice-enabled dimension to make this work as socialising. This is a very different environment from other online gaming. It also alerts them to other possibilities for meeting people online.

Brazil (3) –  Marina Frid reports from both providers and users of health assistance in Rio who have had to migrate to online-only interactions. These range from psychotherapy to classes for keeping fit. They have to consider what is thereby lost and how to compensate. Users are deeply concerned that they will put on weight and seek to ‘flatten that curve’. Older users are assisted by younger ones. Creative new forms of entertainment and live webcasts by artists and bands may compete for their screen time but also help them through this crisis.

ChinaMaria Nolan discusses the case of young people living at home. There is the support and entertainment represented by social media, which becomes even more important at such a time. Gaming, in particular, can alleviate boredom. At the same time, this devotion to online may emphasise their disconnection from the wider world.

China (2) – Yingru Chen has been carrying out online interviews with people in Wuhan, the eye in the pandemic storm and talks about the problematic relationship between the population and the state. His participants reveal a network of volunteering organised online that was not state-led and the importance of hyper-local groups, again below the state radar, including support for local health workers, such as driving them to work. Most of this is organised through WeChat or Xiaoqu, an app designed for small districts.

Democratic Republic of the Congo – Katrien Pype reports that even under conditions where lockdown seems particular difficult and strange there is mostly conformity. What may have helped are ways people appropriate these events into more familiar idioms, often playing with semantics that link the virus to the army or male sexuality – previous sources of fear – or motifs that relate to confinement or distancing, or our current fascination with the metrics of death.  All are attempts to make sense of these unprecedented events by linking them to more familiar tropes.

France – Sophie Colas documents many initiatives developed to support older people in lockdown, especially phone connections between younger and senior citizens who are often more vulnerable to loneliness and isolation, but also fear of dying alone. Some crave the sociality that is now too dangerous, while others refuse to share the public anxiety and are more fatalistic. Meanwhile, most welcome long chats on the phone.

Germany The unhoused people of Leipzig are the concern of Luisa Schneider. As in other cases those with the least, lose still more during social isolation. One response is `gift fences’ where donation bags are left as an anonymous charity. There is also a rise in volunteering, creating bonds between strangers that may last beyond the pandemic.

Ireland – Daniel Miller repeats a previous exercise called ‘social prescribing,’ by trying to compile a comprehensive list of the myriad activities and initiatives that have been developing online. He argues that the pandemic is being exploited to confirm to the people of the town, their own perception that they are living within a strong community.

Israel – Elad Ben Elul shows how the impact of lockdown depends hugely upon the prior conditions for each population. For orthodox Jewish adults, almost all activities were collective, including prayer, learning and eating. Some may not use the internet or smartphones. Ramadan was also a time of rupture from Islamic tradition. By contrast, orthodox Jewish children were often already using almost completely online learning, because they were trying to avoid local secular education.

Italy – Rosa Maria Radogna considers how, under conditions of complete lockdown, people take to the balcony to watch the street and talk to neighbours or get involved in street singing or playing musical instruments. The idea was also spread through Facebook. The balcony is also where they express support for health workers, lower baskets with food for those in need, or project films onto the walls of the buildings opposite.

Japan 1 – Julia Nagai explains why, when the government is not legally able to enforce lockdown, the people become the instruments of conformity through social media. Businesses also see it as their responsibility to promote compliance with social distancing. The key to lockdown is social consensus and making it shameful to be seen as failing to comply.

Japan 2 – Carolin Becke reports on a movement to encourage people to dress in Kimono while at home. Seen as a way of changing the mood, despite being unable to go out. Developing the requisite skills such as obi ties, create a focal point and makes the wearer want to connect with others to display the result. Challenges such as finding a strawberry themed kimono, keep at bay the more downbeat feelings of being stuck at home.

Japan 3 – Laura Haapio-Kirk’s text and cartoon relate to a situation where many older people have retained the very successful feature phone, that had been common in Japan. But which has meant they did not transition to the smartphone. An example is of a man isolated in hospital where the lack of connection is then keenly felt. One response has been an uptake in online teaching about smartphone use.

Kenya – Hassan Kochore and Neil Carrier discuss the often brutal sometimes fatal ways police enforce curfew measures and the problem of how homeless people are supposed to stay home. This results in many ironic and humorous comments on social media which may refer to domestic abuse and the (lack of) extramarital relations. There is also a rise of folk remedies and an occasional glimpse of a better (less polluted) future.

The Netherlands – Rebekha Adriana considers the use of Facebook by the Indonesian diaspora. This included two community initiatives. One to distribute food supplies to the vulnerable, such as undocumented migrants who may not have a credit card, which is now essential for buying groceries. Another initiative was for organising free counselling sessions for Indonesians who are struggling. Both are examples of how a diaspora community comes together online in a time of crisis.

Poland Magdalena Góralska tells the story of a grassroots initiative called The Visible Hand which reached 90k members in a week. It is based on a stranger to stranger help, with an emphasis on various forms of vulnerability. When sheer size started to make the group less functional, it split into over 150 local subgroups, as well as groups amongst the diaspora and more specialist Facebook discussions and groups. Such bottom-up initiatives will also face problems of unclear responsibility and verification.

Romania – Anda Becut Marinescu notes that quarantine measures set up a series of conflicts within Romanian society.  Methods of enforcing social isolation included the imposition of large number of fines, but also stigmatising groups thought to be non-compliant. These included elderly people, Roma, orthodox Christians who had continued to hold church services and returned migrants who were believed to have escaped quarantine.

Serbia Mladen Stajic, Marko Pisev and Bojan Zikic document various Facebook-based initiatives from assisting older people in lockdown, transferring green markets for fresh produce online, home-based production of cotton masks and other useful medical devices and initiatives to stream cultural and sporting events in Serbia. Domestic demonstrations both support the health service and protest the lockdown.

Uganda – For people in a lower-income area of Kampala, Charlotte Hawkins notes the primary problem is simply getting enough food. Actual social isolation is impossible in cramped living conditions. Generally, though the measures are supported as necessary, and the value of social media in keeping in touch has become so clear as to overcome prior conservatism.

The UK (1) – Under conditions which should be called physical rather than social distancing, having a pet dog grows in significance as the grounds for leaving the house and having a directed purpose. Similarly, people appreciated that a cat can become essential company and people pay careful attention to their adoption. Generally, this brings out the enduring significance of pets in British family life.

The UK (2) Joshua Bluteau notes that clothes-making is one of the many businesses that has collapsed as a result of social isolation. But high-end artisanal tailoring can continue at home. The result is both to remind people that this craft exists but also to document their attempts to contribute by making donations and sewing scrubs for medical workers, not surprisingly very high-quality scrubs; probably the only time NHS workers will appear in Savile Row tailoring.

The UK (3) – Although monks may have more experience of being sequestered than most, Richard Irvine reveals their feelings of bewilderment when cut off from services such as to their local parish and their personal feelings of loneliness. Online equivalents (or for the elderly, phone connections) have come to the fore as a way of keeping in touch and providing prayer and support; revealing the role of prayer in creating connections and sharing. Their previous experience also highlights the importance of structure during life under social isolation.

The UK (4) – Angelos Theocharis reports on what happens when the Waterstones Russian Book Club goes online. The delight at the author’s appearance, the showing of a flower bouquet to the moderator, the interruption of an author’s daughter, the zoom `room’ getting too full, the arguments over good literature, participants concerns over their appearance and now their home interiors, all reveal how the online can be humanised.

The US (1) – Asad el-Malik reports on how artists are using social media to combat isolation. For example, DJs spinning records via Facebook and Instagram. Bands who would have performed at festivals are going out through TV. Some are creating videos to support medical workers or struggling artists. Poets are finding virtual equivalents to showcase the spoken word. A film festival goes online. Artists thereby respond to a situation that demands their creativity in order to remain linked to audiences.

The US (2)David Saad Per Asplund concentrates on individual narratives of social isolation and the differences that thereby emerge as to what has become important to people. Of all the things that are no longer possible, some stand out. It may be the gym, daily routines, not being able to see a girl, not being able to teach, or just staying healthy. In each case, circumstances have forced them into this consciousness of their own priorities.

For more information about this project, please contact g.murariu@ucl.ac.uk

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