Does The Pandemic Mean the Death of Individualism?: Community in A Crisis

This piece was written for and published in The Everyday Magazine in April 2020, during that brief window at the start of the global pandemic when some of us thought maybe, just maybe, Covid 19, as well as disaster, could bring about major positive world change. A return of community cohesion; using technology to aid, not isolate.

In the last 50 years the way we view community, close relationships and our place in the world in relation to them has shifted greatly. It is hard to tell if the transformations; the shift from a community’s localisation to globalisation, has made us more or less connected. In 2020 we have our close friends and family in our pockets 24/7, always available to chat to on Whatsapp or check in with on Facebook or Instagram, but living on a street where you know your neighbours by name and family are close enough to swing by unannounced for a cuppa is not the common state any more. 

And nor does it have to be; the world does not have to be static and stuck in the past. But 2020 has already got us thinking about our support networks a lot more. Hell, as I write this, the last week has got us thinking about our support networks a lot more. Things are changing every day because of covid-19; it is mid-March as I write this and the concepts of self-isolation and lock-down had little personal meaning to any of us a month ago, but are now constantly at the forefront of everyone’s minds.  

It would seem more and more people are discovering pretty quickly that you can be lonely as hell and without practical support even when surrounded by millions of people, just as if you were living in the middle of nowhere. Olivia Lang has recently written beautifully about this relatively new phenomenon:

“Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.”

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Can we get by on support and care through only social media and chat groups?  Are we really self sufficient enough to not just survive, but to thrive without real life versions of either? Do we need to start turning to our immediate neighbours more for support and connection, in a way we haven’t for decades? And is technology and social media able to help us do that?

Let’s go back in time to before covid-19. Everything fell apart for me recently. I had my little family running pretty nicely, and was very proud of my ability to get by parenting my kids on my own. Then four months ago I found out that, within a few weeks, I was going to have to have major surgery, and would need intensive support for a month or so afterwards. All of a sudden something I had no control of had upset the balance, and I wasn’t as self-sufficient as I thought I was any more. My nuclear family suddenly became very vulnerable. Community and friendships geographically close to me, here in my home city, immediately became extremely important to me again. 

 I had to do something I had never done before, and did not come easily to me – ask for help. I took a deep, trepidatious breath and set up a Whatsapp group of everyone who offered help and was local, and between them I felt cocooned and held in an invisible safety net for the whole time. All I had to do was type a message on my phone and someone would be there. No-one had to give more time or energy to help me than they wanted to, everyone had different ways they could help comfortably fitting in around their own lives and responsibilities, whether it was for 10 minutes or a whole afternoon, and that was enough.

People turned up with vast amounts of food prepared with care and love; one drove for an hour in the middle of storm Jordi to make me chapatis and dhal and pour me wine. Friends welcomed my children into their families for the day with open arms or cleaned my house from top to bottom whilst simultaneously plumping my cushions and holding my hand. Lying on my sofa for days in a fug of opiates with the front door unlocked, waiting for the next person to poke their head in the door or drop my daughter home from school, taught me a level of trust and sureness in community that I won’t forget in a hurry, which lifted my heart when I thought of it, and which I didn’t realise had always been there waiting. 

I thought I had discovered something people had forgotten about, and thought it would be nice to write about it to remind everyone, but it would seem that just as I emerge out of my post-surgery house-arrest, the entire world is entering it with me, except this time there can be no visitors or open door.

Things are happening so quickly at the moment, life is changing so quickly, it is hard to keep up. But the one thing I can see and focus on is the huge uprising of community action and support over the last ten days or so, mainly started up on digital platforms and being maintained on them. Amidst the greed and panic they shine out. Neighbours have set up Whatsapp groups, are dropping off essentials outside eachother’s doors; support systems are being built and put in place at a crazy speed. People are giving their services away, sharing information, providing virtual shoulders. Closeness and kinship are the order of the day.

This week I caught up with Hazel Forova, 24 years old and living in Easton, Bristol, on Messenger.  She is involved with the Mutual Aid movement and has helped set up the Bristol Covid-19 Mutual Aid Facebook group; one of hundreds of such groups currently springing up across the country. 

Mutual Aid’s main Facebook page states “Mutual aid means helping others without expecting a reward, and receiving help without offering a reward. We give as much as we can, and we take as much as we need. This is not about charity.”

They have been doing what my friends did for me on a micro-level after my operation for some time. And on a national level, such care and give-and-take is extolled as essentially an anarchic act against the selfishness of our society.  I asked Hazel her thoughts on the state of community in general and in our local area:

“Community has been eroded over time – not through the fault of people, but through pressure from capitalism and the state; the pressure to make a living, the pressure of unstable housing, of competition with each other. Or as Margaret Thatcher said “there is no society, only individuals and their families”. Is there really only individuals and their families? We can see here how the concept of individualism has become common. Individualism is where we see ourselves as independent units who are not innately part of a larger web of society, of communities. This makes us as human beings vulnerable to disaster and to exploitation.

In Easton, and other parts of east Bristol, I encounter more of a sense of community than in other places I’ve lived. But do we really know all of our neighbours? Do we talk to everyone who lives in this area? The city has historically been and is presently divided by class and race…. as we go further into this crisis, we need more than ever to redistribute the resources that people need”.

And what does Hazel think about the role of technology in building community?

“Do phones and the internet help build local community in normal circumstances? I’m not sure; probably not.  As great as it is to keep in contact with friends or family from across the world, it does take us away from immediately connecting with the people around us who we don’t know. But right now we can see that because of the need to isolate, technology is giving us the ability to communicate more instantly with people we literally can’t talk to. As the government announces lockdown, it will be even more vital to use technology to keep in contact with our loved ones and neighbours”.

Thatcher’ insistence in the 1980s that there are only individuals and their immediate families in small isolated units did its best to destroy the belief that the natural state of humankind should be tightly knit communities interlinked throughout the world. As the world opened up due to advancing technology, it almost became seen as backward-looking to value physical, local community over global community. The sustaining of community has been seen as a behaviour exhibited by those on the fringes of society; the anarchists, the hippies, the eccentric, not those at the forefront of driving society forward, the successful people. 

But community support has always been there lurking behind the lie of individualism, and it’s in times of personal crisis we realise that. The times we are unwell and can’t look after ourselves or our children without help, the times we are grieving or lose everything. Maybe it has taken this global pandemic we are currently in the middle of to collectively remember how much we need to feel part of a community to beat loneliness and get what we need to get by. 

And technology, funnily enough, the very thing driving us forward and away from chats over the garden fence for decades, is now the very thing linking us together and possibly burying the cult of individualism for good. Get on Zoom and host a pub date with your friends. Get on Facebook and find and join your local mutual aid group. Reach out and ask after the people you care for and never speak to any more. Get online and join a livestreaming yoga class. But whatever you do, keep connecting. In these weird, unchartered times it could mean the difference between mentally not surviving and possibly thriving. 

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