The coronavirus is forcing us to keep our distance from other people. Yet these extraordinary times have also brought forth moments of warmth and solidarity. People are offering each other words of encouragement and banding together to fight their loneliness.
Hongdae has gotten quieter recently, and emptier, just like countless other parts of the world right now. This neighborhood in the South Korean capital, Seoul, is normally filled with people sitting at cafes and bars well into the night. Students can be seen wandering through the alleyways. Neon signs flash. Music spills onto the sidewalk from cosmetic shops.
Cho Soojung moved here for the lively vibe. She lives alone. Until recently, her daily routine was to go to her university in the morning and to then meet up with friends, often not coming home until midnight.
But that’s all changed since the coronavirus outbreak. South Korea was five weeks ago where Europe and the United States are now with their waves of infections. Chos’ world, like many people’s, has shrunk. She now commutes between her bedroom and her kitchen. She only goes out to buy food or face masks. She also has many things delivered. “Stay home,” the South Korean government has implored its citizens, while other countries have imposed full-on curfews.
The threat of the virus has forced millions of people to radically change their daily lives. They fear for themselves, their friends and loved ones. Some people have lost relatives and have not been able to say a proper goodbye. Many fear for their livelihoods. Others find it challenging to have their whole family crowded together at home.
Otherwise sociable people like Cho, who live alone, have suddenly been forced to do without human closeness. The coronavirus pandemic came at a time when more people live in single households than ever before. “I miss my friends,” Cho says. Her family lives hundreds of kilometers away in the town of Daegu, which was hit hard by the epidemic. She feels cut off from them. Has “social distancing” made people like Cho feel lonelier?
Psychiatrist Borwin Bandelow says the situation is especially difficult for extroverts. “Those who prefer to live secluded lives and avoid small talk will fare better. But people who are used to constant communication will suffer, because they need personal contact.”
Loneliness can, in fact, make a person physically ill. But being alone isn’t the same as feeling lonely, psychologists point out. “The fact that people are distancing themselves from each other does not necessarily have to lead to social isolation,” says Suh Sooyeon, a professor of psychology at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul. “It’s about showing people that they’re still emotionally connected to others. Video calls and text messages are very helpful.”
Cho has also been keeping in touch with her friends and family by phone. For them, the internet has become more than just a window to the world. It has become a place where people can find encouragement to make the best of their situation. Like many other Koreans, Cho has been cooking more often and with more verve than before. A recipe for “Dalgona Coffee” is currently trending in South Korea. It’s a hot beverage that can only be prepared by those who have plenty of time on their hands: The coffee, sugar and water must be stirred 400 times.
There are new online courses for yoga and calisthenics around the world, in addition to dance classes, invites to quiz nights and readings. They’re all designed to give people hope. German actor Ulrich Matthes, for instance, has read ballads by Friedrich Schiller for DER SPIEGEL. He chose “The Pledge” because “it’s such a simple appeal for solidarity, friendship and being there for one another.” And even though it hurts, birthday parties are now being celebrated via FaceTime.
New Yorkers Come Together
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has also urged people to come up with novel ideas to dispel their loneliness. “Don’t underestimate the emotional trauma and don’t underestimate the pain of isolation,” he said. Most New Yorkers are also stuck at home. The otherwise bustling city, which imposed a curfew last week, has been gripped by a debilitating fear. The number of new infections is rising dramatically. By April 1, the city had more than 40,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 1,096 deaths. Many people are unsettled.
Alcoholics Anonymous is headquartered in New York City and offers more meetings there than anywhere else in the world, has made the switch to video conferences. Many people are using the video platform Zoom, which can show as many as 100 participants on the screen at the same time. “The longer this isolation lasts, the greater my desire gets for alcohol and drugs,” says Chris, who attended one of the AA meetings recently. “These online meetings are a lifesaver.”
Organizers have said that there’s a higher demand for AA meetings now, partly because the need for support is greater, and partly because there are now people sitting in front of their computers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend a meeting.
Derrick Jones, a U.S.-based DJ who also goes by the name D-Nice, has been responsible lately for putting out lots of good vibes and a sense of community. He’s already sent out invitations through his Instagram page to several virtual dance parties at “Club Quarantine.” He spends up to nine hours in his kitchen in Los Angeles, playing hip-hop, R&B and oldies. Outside his window, the sun was slowly setting as Jones — wearing various hats — greeted a handful of prominent guests who had “stopped by” and left comments or sent an emoji, including Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, The Rock, even Michelle Obama. And every so often, Jones would shout, “Wash your hands!” More than 100,000 people joined the virtual party. His Instagram parties have “become a place where we dance together virtually and stay in touch,” Jones said afterward, obviously pleased with the turnout.
What the World Needs Now
And it’s not only famous people who are hosting parties or concerts online. From her New York apartment, the clarinetist Yoonah Kim played Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” with her fiancé on the violin and streamed the concert live. Their message: “Let’s stay positive.”
But it’s been the Italians, for their part, who have demonstrated best that music brings people together. At set times, they go to their windows and balconies and sing the national anthem and popular Italian hits. Their high spirits, even in as desperate a situation as now, has touched people around the world.
Even people who don’t have a balcony simply sing from their living room. The Brit James Sills founded the group, The Sofa Singers, an online choir with 500 members. “We had people from all over England and from California, Mexico and even Kenya,” Sills told the BBC. “I think people are really happy to do something that is positive and that they can feel part of.”
And tears came to the eyes of many YouTube viewers when students from the Berklee Conservatory in Boston sang, “What the World Needs Now,” which was written in 1965 to unite a torn America.
But such videos and online events can’t replace human closeness or psychological counselling. In many cities, from France to China, psychological consultations offered over the phone have been flooded with requests.
Rainbows, Mermaids and Mamma’s Pasta Recipe
It’s remarkable how creative people around the world have become at encouraging and helping one another. In many countries, children have painted rainbows and hung them in their windows.
In Japan, a picture of “Amabie” — a mythical mermaid — has made the rounds on social media. According to the centuries-old legend, Amabie first appeared off the coast of Kumamoto and said: “If an epidemic ever spreads, draw a picture of me and show it to everyone.”
In Italy, people have shared pasta recipes from their mothers and grandmothers on YouTube and Facebook to feel less alone. Normally, recipes like these are often treated like family treasures and jealously guarded.
It’s been hard for Italians to give up some of their most defining habits, like drinking their coffee at the bar or hosting big lunches with the whole family on Sundays. But this isn’t the most pressing problem at the moment. Italy’s been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus. Comfort food helps.
When St. Joseph’s Day rolled around last week — the patron saint of families, of all things — recipes for “Crispelle San Giuseppe” trended online. And if need be, a person can always go sit on their balcony while they eat in order to feel less alone, as demonstrated by videos on the comedy website “Casa Surace.”
People have even gotten creative in their offline lives. Spaniards have been communicating in their immediate vicinity, the so-called “urbanización,” via their balconies. Neighbors play the game “padel,” a mixture of squash and tennis, by leaning out their windows. Or a fitness trainer stands outside in the courtyard and demonstrates how to do certain exercises.
Breaking Chains of Infection, Not People’s Spirits
The curfew in Spain is stricter than anywhere else in Europe. It’s been a huge adjustment, as public life in Spain normally takes place in bars, cafes and restaurants more than anywhere else. Like nearly everyone else in the city, the American professor Steven Katz and his wife, who are on a 6-month research stint in Barcelona, are hardly allowed to leave their apartment. Only the most necessary errands are allowed. Police patrol the streets, enforcing the curfew. Visits are also prohibited.
From his terrace, Katz has been entertaining his neighbors, who look down from surrounding balconies. He and his wife chat with the older people. Sometimes he plays the banjo for the kids. The neighbors often chime in. Despite the physical distance, Katz and his wife have experienced a deep sense of “intimacy” between the city’s residents. People are growing together in the current predicament.
Time and again, Katz and his wife have observed magical moments from their temporary home in the Spanish region of Catalonia. Every evening at 8 p.m., for example, tens of thousands of people in Barcelona stand on their balconies and clap for several minutes for the doctors and nurses who are caring day and night for COVID-19 patients.
People have also followed suit in France, Greece, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Bulgaria, Israel and Germany. This crisis, said French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, will bring out “the most beautiful sides of humanity, but perhaps also the darkest.”
In Madrid, people have been sharing ideas for how to pass the time on a website that was specifically created for this purpose. The aim is to preserve some of the facets of normal life and integrate them into people’s current routines. The curfew is intended to break the chains of infection, not people’s spirits.
This can also include being more vigilant and helping women who are now trapped inside with men who abuse them.
Don’t Forget the Needy and Elderly
Many people are also trying to help the needy and the lonely. In Canada, more than 30,000 people have joined Facebook groups aimed at helping the less fortunate, such as a single mother in Ottawa who needs food for her baby. In England, there are 200,000 members of 300 local support groups on Facebook. In Lancashire, a woman has started making care packages for elderly people. She told the BBC: “I don’t want plaudits. I just want to help whether it’s food or emotional support.”
Experts warn that especially very old and frail people, who are no longer allowed to receive visitors because of the coronavirus, could face a deep sense of loneliness. It’s possible to help people like this even without the internet, says clinical psychologist Ami Rokach, who also teaches at York University in Canada. “Go to them and talk through the door. Bring or send them something. Write them letters. This gives them the most important feeling they can have: That they matter. That they’re loved and they haven’t been forgotten.”
Crises bring people together. “Otherwise we couldn’t survive,” Rokach says. Things people considered important in the past have been put on the back burner. “I’m glad people understand the importance of closeness.” Even the World Health Organization no longer refers to “social” but physical distancing.
But it’s unclear whether the lessons from this coronavirus outbreak will stick, Rokach says. People tend to be quick to forget. “When this is all over, we need to remind them how wonderful it was to be friendly, compassionate and loving toward one another. After all, it’s not only good for others — it’s good for us.”