A time to keep our distance while strengthening our connections

Tue, 24 Mar 2020

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor, Simon Fraser University

This piece by SFU president Andrew Petter was originally published on the Petter's Perspective blog.

The social distancing required to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the effects of social isolation, an issue that has long been top of mind for the residents of this region. In 2011, the Vancouver Foundation conducted a wide-ranging public consultation that identified social isolation as the issue that most concerned people in Metro Vancouver.

In response to this finding, SFU in 2012 made social isolation the subject of its first annual Public Square Community Summit. Entitled Alone Together, the Summit sought both to foster community engagement and to promote public dialogue on how best to counter social isolation and disconnection. Many of its recommendations were subsequently implemented by local governments and impelled further action by the Vancouver Foundation.  

However, as much as social isolation has commanded concern previously, that concern has been heightened by the social distancing requirements resulting from the COVID-19 crisis.  At a time of crisis, social distancing cuts against our instinct to connect with and comfort each other. Yet, as hard as it may be, scientists and public health experts tell us that it is the most important thing we need to do to save lives.

Social distancing, however, does not mean social isolation. Quite the opposite. When confronted with a crisis, we need to find ways to reach out, to connect and to share each other’s experiences. It is important, therefore, that we don’t let our physical separation stop us from fostering the interpersonal relationships that give us and our communities strength.

Fortunately, technology offers us more tools than ever to reach out and connect. And it’s been inspiring to see so many people using these tools in positive, creative and often heartwarming ways. 

To overcome COVID-19, we must dedicate ourselves to sustaining that spirit. In addition to staying in close touch with family and friends, think about someone who is alone and give them a call. Take time to email people you haven’t communicated with in a long time and ask them how they’re doing. Challenge your friends to an online game of poker, chess, scrabble – you name it. Some people are even having virtual cocktail parties with friends using video links,  while others are serenading neighbours from their windows or balconies.

Whatever means you choose, now more than ever we need to connect with each other. And we especially need to connect with those who are most vulnerable to loneliness and despair. By doing so, we can help to nurture and improve the social well-being of our community when it counts the most.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of this work. Because at the end of the day, we have a common future and destiny. And when we speak to and for each other with one voice and in shared purpose, we will overcome pandemics and we will build a society where hope and belonging endure.

To find inspiration, I encourage you to watch the video (above) that was produced for the 2012 Community Summit. In music and images, the ONE VOICE Music Project calls upon us to bridge differences and find meaningful connections across geographic, generational and cultural divides.