Pandemic and social ties: will nothing be the same anymore?
Keep two meters away, stay in the bubble, wear a mask at all times. During the two years we spent in lockdown, care measures that minimized contact with our loved ones helped slow the spread of a feared virus. Today, also thanks to vaccination, we are back to normal life, but we don’t see the world as before. We changed.
The Friends day that is celebrated this week comes with the end of the restrictions on social gatherings and the non-compulsory use of the chinstrap in closed places; For this reason, certain questions float in the air (or in the ether of social networks): Do you want to meet like before? Have those ties that we thought were unbreakable with our old friends weakened or strengthened?
“During the pandemic I could feel that many ties deepened, perhaps due to some apocalyptic ghost, or because of leaving known schemes,” says Fernando Otero, an Argentine composer and pianist who lives in New York. In 2020, the artist joined a chat of former classmates from the Carlos Pellegrini school, convened to organize a zoom in which friends from high school, many of them residing abroad, would meet again to share their experiences with the pandemic. Everyone liked the proposal: reliving memories of adolescence, saying hello again for birthdays, meeting as adults over fifty, was a balm in the midst of uncertainty. Only one former colleague chose to leave the chat when her political jokes were not celebrated, but most were happy about the reunion, perhaps because the videoconference or the chat did not require the same effort as the classic meeting that had to be organized in a certain place and date.
Without a doubt, the coronavirus transformed our interactions and the social circles in which we moved, but not everyone kept the enthusiasm high like Fernando and his former high school classmates. Physical distance from loved ones changed the way friendship ties were configured and for many the experience was one of disappointment or, in any case, of disconnection.
As the psychiatrist Graciela Moreschi warns, author of Traces of the pandemic in the DNA of the soul (Editorial Lea), there was a great transformation of all the links and now it’s time to reconfigure them based on the new. “Historical friendships were rethought, there was like a strainer that decanted the old friends,” he says. “But new links were strengthened, which I call ‘transversal’: they are the neighborhood help systems, the courses and forums that began to bring together people with common interests, the groups that were put together on social networks, the parents and mothers of the schools, among others”. These types of links prevailed in the pandemic context over those relationships that were maintained by formalities, but that were no longer sustained in everyday life because each person was in another vital moment. “The pandemic made the links sincere,” summarizes Moreschi.
In the absence of local studies on the effects of the pandemic on people’s subjectivity, let’s see what the Covid-19 Social Study revealed, led by University College London, the largest investigation in the United Kingdom on the psychological and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The latest report from the UCL Covid-19 social study on well-being and mental health showed that when the restriction measures were relaxed in that country, in December 2021, people increased their repertoire of activities outside the home but did not increase their happiness. The proportion of people who got together with friends or family had risen sharply after the new year, to 70 percent of those surveyed. However, levels of happiness and life satisfaction had fallen since July 2021, especially among adults under 60, even though their outings had increased. Today, symptoms of depression and anxiety remain on par with levels when the first lockdown was eased in 2020.
Although these results may be surprising, it is possible to find an explanation. That friendship is important for emotional health is something that was already known. Close friendships have even been shown to increase life expectancy. Research conducted by Harvard University in 2017 showed that meaningful social connections play an important role in health, happiness, and longevity.
But what Moreschi warns is that the marks of the pandemic on affective ties were deep, and that the difficulty of re-establishing friendship ties is related to the fact that many people still feel on the edge.
Why, then, doesn’t the fact of being able to meet friends again seem to make us happier?
We imagined that once the lockdowns ended, we would feel liberated to go back out into the world. But what Moreschi warns is that the marks of the pandemic on affective ties were deep, and that the difficulty of re-establishing friendship ties is related to the fact that many people still feel on the edge.
This is how the Argentine artist Nadina Fornara lives it, an active Twitter user, who went through the pandemic recently moved to Europe together with her husband, but without having a consolidated circle of friends. She says that the experience was hard, but Twitter was one of the resources that helped her cope with a depression that still persists. “On Twitter I found a space where I could interact with people without that closeness or that depth that one-on-one with friends requires and in the end I ended up meeting a lot of people with whom we later met in person,” she says.
The pandemic found her recently moved to Barcelona together with her husband and the return to face-to-face life found her residing in Berlin. “It seemed that by moving we were leaving behind the experience of isolation but we also found ourselves with that darkness, it was like it ate us all up and it affected me”, reveals Nadina. For a month now, he has been setting up his new house in Punta del Este, after passing through Buenos Aires where they met for the first time, like a couples’ date, with another Twitter user, Tobías Schapire, director of a social media agency, who also found in the network a space to build new ties.
“But others, on the other hand, were left with a ‘cave syndrome’, a tendency to continue choosing to stay in the comfort of home, not necessarily without friends, because many began to meet in houses, but with less desire to go out or to hang out with friends from before”
“With the return to presence, at the beginning there was like an explosion where everything seemed more interesting”, observes the psychiatrist. “People began to gather, you could see in the restaurants that people were looking into each other’s eyes, even leaving the phone aside; the squares were filled with people and fairs of all kinds were opened in the open air, ”she lists.
“But others, on the other hand, were left with a ‘cave syndrome’, a tendency to continue choosing to stay in the comfort of home, not necessarily without friends, because many began to meet in houses, but with less desire to go out or to hang out with old friends. Some links were hierarchized –analyzes the doctor–. The pandemic had a straining effect on friendships.”
Although the differences between friends always existed and that was part of the fun, the pandemic put us to deal with new and strange challenges to maintain the friendship: “How do I tell him that I feel uncomfortable without wearing a mask?”; “How do I explain that I don’t want to get together with people who are not from our bubble?”; “What if I disagree with your questioning of vaccines in a post on your social network?”
It is not surprising that many of those consulted have deleted at least one friend from their social networks, after a disagreement about how to stand up to Covid-19.
The pandemic eroded many of those ties that were seen as strong and unbreakable. As happened to Tobías Schapire, who distanced himself from a lifelong friend because of the posts he published on his digital accounts: “One of my best friends, with whom I had never talked about politics in twenty years of friendship, accused me of gorilla and ‘sympathizer of the yellow balloons’ when I didn’t expect it, just for saying in a chat with friends that the long confinement seemed unjustified. He began to compare me with the neighbors in his neighborhood who broke the quarantine and he described me as a balloonist ”.
At a macro-social level, Daniel Feierstein, author of the book Pandemic: A social and political balance of the Covid-19 crisis (Fund for Economic Culture), observes that a very strong break was generated in the basic notions of community life.
beyond the cracks
“There was no agreement on the care strategies to be adopted in a particularly uncertain and distressing situation,” explains Feierstein. In this context, forms of neglect or lack of respect for those established standards of care affected social ties. Values much deeper than the very logic of the political crack that had been breaking social ties for a long time were put into dispute.
It is the paradox of pandemic friendship: while unprecedented community experiences were generated such as shopping networks, help with food, zoom birthdays or sending gifts to feel closer, inside there was a certain feeling of exhaustion and disconnection with others.
“We are all Covid survivors, some of us were infected more than once, some of our loved ones went on a trip before. I feel that I have revalued all my ties with friends and family”, reflects Juan Balanovsky, a businessman who, after more than seventy years of life, has overcome many challenges and has the wisdom to understand that everything happens. “Friend’s day is every day”, he concludes and although it may seem like a cliché, it is much more than that. It means we’re on time.