The Pandemic Has Strained Social Relationships

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The first thing that should come to mind when thinking of the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic is the immediate and embodied human tragedy.

The human costs in Canada can be counted in the 35,000 deaths, the millions of people who were infected—some of whose health will never be the same—and the more general damage to the mental health and wellbeing of millions more.

After that, costs could be counted in the economic impacts of shutdowns, unemployment and livelihoods lost, and the massive increases of public debt.

But one of the biggest costs that no one is counting is the destroyed interpersonal relationships—relationships in families, between friends, among co-workers, and more generally all the connections between people that make up our society.

As sociologists tell us, society is precisely this set of relationships that exist between people. Simple and everyday social relations are the basis for everything else that we do economically, politically, and culturally. When they break down, everything else people rely upon is prone to breaking down as well.

The damage to individual social relations

The damage that has been done to social relations through the pandemic comes in different forms, which are more or less obvious. Some of the obvious causes of frayed relationships are the politicization and polarization due to anti-vaccine and anti-mandate sentiment.

In recent weeks, for example, this sentiment has been expressed in protests and blockades, but the same discontent has been with us since the early days of the pandemic. Polarization is also happening across the political spectrum, with greater distinctions being drawn between political parties on pandemic-related topics.

Such issues are enough to strain many relationships. People find it hard to accept that their friends or family members subscribe to particular views, and some are cutting people out of their lives because the disagreements run so deep. Even when relationships are not fully broken, friends and families may not be able to talk about such issues, if they can even stand to be around each other.

More generally, relationships can also be strained because of particular kinds of behaviours throughout the pandemic. It has been difficult to navigate socializing of any kind and this can easily be a source of tension. For example, people may feel that their family or friends are acting inappropriately in the context of a public health emergency. The flip side of the coin is that people may also feel their friends or family are acting morally superior or overly cautious.

Whether brash acts of protest or simple tensions over socializing, the damage can be permanent and many people will be unable to think of their family members or friends as they did before.

The damage to social cohesion

Political polarization or strained relationships are in many ways obvious compared with other kinds of strained social relations. We can actually see the demonstrations in the streets, recognize the divide opening up between segments of the population, and feel the frayed relationships with friends and family.

The more difficult thing to deal with for a lot of people is the harsh realization that those around them—society as a whole—did not value their existence. The community that was supposed to be a support network did not care if people lived or died.

As an aside, I should mention that the general social callousness was not uniform across the country. Some provinces, like my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, had the kinds of social solidarity and social cohesion that would have made a big difference in other parts of Canada.

Some of the simplest expressions of generalized social callousness were people who acted in ways that did not take into consideration the safety and wellbeing of those around them. This is a widespread and general sentiment that many felt, but it is especially pronounced among people with disabilities and among seniors.

Many people with disabilities, for example, suspected they were considered disposable before the pandemic, but now know they could just die and no one would care. And in fact, some people would be relieved. Older adults have also been treated as disposable. Data tracking by Nora Loreto shows 19,807 of 34,538 recorded pandemic deaths were in residential care facilities, most of which were older adults.

Much of the death and suffering happened away from public view and there has been little effort to reconcile or mourn this national tragedy. Still, many people recognize what has happened, and also recognize that it could easily be them—since we will all, if we live long enough, become old and disabled.

The realization that anyone could as easily be cast on the trash pile cannot help but damage social relations and cohesion in a society that claims to hold compassion and humanitarianism as core values.

Where we go from here

Taking into account the breakdown of social relations and the catalogue of ethical failures throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, it is easy to imagine that this country is in for a difficult post-pandemic era, whenever that may arrive. Even now, as much of the country attempts to once again re-open, the fraying of social relations is having an impact. 

Is it any wonder that so many people are not keen to go back to “normal” after having seen the way this society makes people disposable and throws them away? It is surprising they might not want to go back to their workplaces in the midst of an ongoing pandemic wave and might not trust that those who claim to be leaders have their wellbeing in mind? How can thoughtful people feel good about going back into a society that has a set of bared fangs?

Before the pandemic people believed, at least on some level, that those around them had their back and if push came to shove their family, friends, and the community as a whole would stand up and do the right thing. Now, many will never be able to think about their family or friends the same way and they will never feel part of a community.

What cost can be put on that?

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