Missed Connections: Social Cohesion and COVID-19

2020, Community Building, Series Distant Not Disengaged

Humans rely on each other for our survival and well-being. But the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the ways we can connect and relate to one another.

Social cohesion describes the sense of connection and solidarity within and across communities and has been referred to as the “glue that holds a society together.” Even after some re-opening of Canadian society, physical distancing guidelines remain in place and in-person interactions remain mostly limited to our “bubbles,” consisting usually of our family members and already established close friendships. Over the past months, though some Canadians have indicated a greater sense of connection with their families, they report feeling less connected to their friends and the broader community. When we can’t associate with varied groups of people, we miss out on opportunities to move beyond narratives of “us” and “them” and towards kindness, trust and empathy for those whose experiences are different from our own.

Despite our physical separation, a caremongering movement quickly emerged in response to the pandemic. Diverse communities have started mutual aid networks and neighbourhood pods to address inequities made worse by the pandemic, and community foundations are funding innovative grassroots projects to combat isolation. People are showing support in unprecedented numbers to speak out about racism and many are finding ways to connect with each other and even strengthen social resilience in their communities.

But as the months pass and we move deeper into the pandemic, can we keep this momentum up? As the demands to limit our social interactions persist and the stress of uncertainty and isolation continue, how will our mental health and wellbeing, as well as our ability to cooperate as a society, be impacted?

This instalment of Distant, Not Disengaged is all about connection. Join us to share how your social experience has changed under the pandemic and what you are both hopeful for and worried about. You’re invited to bring a photo (printed or on your phone) of a favourite recent social interaction, pre-physical distancing and COVID-19, to share in small discussion groups with fellow participants.

We will also hear from some special guests who will share their thoughts on our social fabric and how it has been and may continue to be affected by COVID-19.

Thu, 13 Aug 2020

12:00 - 1:15 p.m. (PT)

Online Event

Distant, Not Disengaged

Distant, Not Disengaged was created as an experimental and innovative online event series to illuminate the urgent issues and opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. The series was a collaboration between SFU Public Square, the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and community partner CityHive.

Watch the Series Recap


Jane Cox - Principal, Cause+Affect (co-facilitator)

Lidia Kemeny – Director, Partnerships, Vancouver Foundation

Sean Lauer – Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, UBC

Carmel Tanaka – Community Engagement Professional

Yan Kestens - Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, École de Santé Publique de l'Université de Montréal

Event Summary 

Key Takeaways from Missed Connections: Social Cohesion and COVID-19

By Jane Cox, Principal of Cause+Affect

Our world has never been so connected and focused on an issue, yet at the same time so divided and literally separated from one another, as we collectively grapple with new social norms in response to COVID-19. 

Earlier this spring, B.C. was spotlighted as a national hero as our province, in stark comparison to others, “flattened the curve” in record time (although this is changing). But could our adeptness at social distancing – a term that was quickly changed to physical distancing – actually shine some light on one of our province’s biggest downfalls?

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Both Vancouver and B.C. have received a lot of attention these past few years for being a place where people often experience loneliness. A 2017 Vancouver Foundation survey of Metro Vancouverites found that around half of us find it difficult to make friends, and approximately one in four find themselves alone more often than they would like.

Social cohesion describes the sense of connection and solidarity within and across communities, and has been referred to as the “glue that holds a society together.” This feeling of connectedness creates communities and a sense of belonging: a feeling that is ultimately linked to happiness and wellbeing.  

So how has our already frayed social fabric shifted during these six months of COVID-19, and how can we create more opportunities to connect? What does long-term resilience and strength of our social infrastructure look like?

These were just some of the guiding questions for Missed Connections: Social Cohesion and COVID-19, part of our Distant, Not Disengaged series with Cityhive and the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. The group of panelists curated for this discussion brought a combination of research, community knowledge, and first-hand experience in community engagement.

Below I’ve shared their thoughts on what conditions we need to create to support social cohesion, as well as individual action we can take to increase our sense of belonging and happiness both now and long after we’re freely moving beyond our own “social bubbles.”

Dr. Sean Lauer

Dr. Sean Lauer is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, and is currently examining community-based organizations in Vancouver as a form of social infrastructure.

Sean Lauer began his talk by addressing the term “social distancing”. In sociology, they call this the “community problem” – most of us live in close proximity to others and have many interactions with strangers on a daily basis, but in terms of a relationship, we don’t have close connections. These are conditions that can lead us to feeling reserved and lonely.

In his work, he thinks of the antidotes - and lately he’s been thinking about social infrastructure, the physical places that bring us together, as well as the role of community organizations.

Sean’s key takeaways:

  1. Social connection increases the more we routinely visit public spaces such as parks, sidewalks, seawalls, cafes, libraries and community centres, so that we can recognize other people who also regularly use those spaces. It is those regular interactions within those spaces that increases our chances for relationships with strangers.
  2. Similarly, routine is an important condition community organizations create with their programming, as it creates a shared focus on a shared activity, increasing the opportunity for meaningful connections.   

Under COVID-19, we have experienced a constraint on the use of social infrastructure. This is particularly true for community programming, which poses a threat to these kinds of interactions with strangers. Sean is learning that we’re adapting and new ways of connecting are emerging.

Dr. Yan Kestens

Yan Kestens is a Professor, Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Montreal and has recently been involved in the launch of a research project called the COHESION Study.

Yan Kesten’s work focuses on urban environments and health, how cities are being transformed and, in turn, how these transformations create health or health inequities.

Under the current pandemic, he shifted his focus to the COHESION study - ‘COVID-19 Health and Social Interaction in Neighbourhoods’, a pan-Canadian study that collects data in real time to evaluate the impacts of COVID-19.

All Canadians age 15 and up can log in online and fill out questionnaires regarding their health, mobility, perceptions and other factors. There is also a smartphone app that passively tracks data to provide evidence to support decision making for health authorities and urban planners.  

Themes explored in the COHESION Study range from attitudes and practice, daily mobility and mental health outcomes, and social isolation and living conditions. The study monitors trends and themes over time and across space so that all the data can be readily accessible to assist new solutions.

Some preliminary findings show that:

  1. There is a high level of concern (around 75%) of the pandemic’s effect on the community, particularly seniors and children.
  2. When asked in the baseline data, prior to COVID-19, there was a high response to feeling left out and lacking companionship.

Lidia Kemeny

Lidia Kemeny is Vancouver Foundation’s Director of Partnerships. She oversees the Neighbourhood Small Grants initiative and leads the foundation’s community research agenda, examining community life in Metro Vancouver and across B.C.

Lidia highlighted Vancouver Foundation’s work across the province, connecting the generosity of donors with the energy of hundreds of volunteers and partners involved in grassroots community organizing. 

She points out that happy memories most often involve being with others, and that meaningful connections play a very integral role in our health and wellbeing. Lidia says matter of factly that “loneliness is bad for happiness.

She references the success of grassroots action as a remedy to social isolation and loneliness, and shares the organization’s ongoing Neighbourhood Small Grants program that supports individuals in organizing their own community project to bring people together.

She has heard from the community that the pandemic created paralysis in some people, even in community activists, – which is a normal reaction to disaster – and suggests that in this new reality, and in our own way, we can try to see ourselves as both a giver and a receiver of help.  

She concludes that:

  1. The majority of Canadians do feel more lonely and isolated under COVID - and it’s more true the younger you are. In BC, we are also reporting feeling more bored and stressed.
  2. We need new tools, capacities, and commitments. What will it take for us all to become the helpers and ask for help when we need it? She shares a basic tool the Vancouver Foundation has created for the month of September to encourage people to host conversations and fight loneliness in our communities. It’s called On the Table BCa community platform that inspires social connection - something we need more now than ever.

Carmel Tanaka

Carmel Tanaka is a Community Engagement Professional who is guided by the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam (the repairing of the world). Her professional specialties are organizational disaster management and partnership building, however much of her work to bring people together is volunteer.

Carmel spoke frankly about what it’s like to be a community engagement professional on the ground and having to “pivot overnight” to embrace new roles as she shifted her community programming from in person to online.  

She also reminded us that access to online experiences is a privilege, and we need to be aware of those that are not included in this new reality.

Wearing many hats and engaging many communities, she hopes that the pandemic has made it clear that community grassroots initiatives are “essential to our sanity”.

As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and interned Japanese-Canadians, who proudly identifies as "Jewpanese", she has experienced and responded to the rise in racism. Among many projects she is involved in across organizations and community groups, She is involved in the Vancouver Asian Film Festivals’ Elimin8hate program to create safer environments for Asian Canadians to share their experiences on top of many other roles she plays across organizations and community groups.

It is not hard to see that Carmel herself models the community catalyst role we need to support to foster and maintain social cohesion now and in the future. But 90% of her work is volunteer. She offers two suggestions:

  1. We need more funding opportunities for community engagement professionals like herself who aren’t backed by one organization, but work tirelessly across many groups to bring people together.
  2. It’s not a secret that Vancouver is a hard place to connect, so take it upon yourself and “create the spaces you want to be part of.”


I introduced the panel with a quote from a recent article in Rolling Stones magazine by local anthropologist Wade Davis. Although the article was called ‘The Unravelling of America’, the culture of our neighbours is not so dissimilar to our own. I wonder if the opportunity that lies in front of us during this time is an underlying cultural issue long overdue for an overhaul on how we think, feel, and behave?

“More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose.”

In this moment in time, we are faced with the possibility that our society’s “glue” is becoming less sticky, but there is also a strong countermovement that has already shown us that people do want to come together and help one another. Let’s hope we seize this opportunity to connect more than we already do, and slowly shift from an individualistic mentality, to that of a community mindset.


Watch the Recording

In the News

There are ways to successfully bring people together during COVID-19 — CBC's The Early Edition (August 13, 2020)

Further Reading

Distant, Not Disengaged Final Report

Learn about the series’ impact on community connection and dialogue in this report featuring testimonials, media highlights, supporting resources and more.


Distant, Not Disengaged Events