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Combating Social Isolation: Behavioural Changes During COVID-19

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, mental health concerns among people saw a spike worldwide. Limiting contact with family and friends introduced feelings of isolation and distress among many. 

Volunteering as a crisis counsellor with Kids Help Phone during the pandemic, I have realized that a majority of the people who reach out are either directly or indirectly impacted by the pandemic in some way. KHP saw an increase of ~350% when the state of emergency was declared in Canada in mid-March, with callers feeling the complications created by isolation and limited physical interactions. 

Therefore, as the sense of loneliness became common during the pandemic, people adapted behaviours that promoted socializing virtually, such as video calling or texting family, as well as behaviours that improved environmental conditions, such as using less transportation. These behaviours are called pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours, respectively, and the psychology underlying this process — beginning from the pandemic restrictions to the adoption of new behaviours — can be explained in a theoretical three-step framework

Decorative

Proposed Three-Step Process

The process is initiated with place confinement, which is described as physical immobility and restriction to living in a specific place of residence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, place confinement was enforced by the government in many countries to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Since place confinement goes hand in hand with minimizing physical interaction with others in society, it is common for people to start experiencing loneliness and mental distress, as was the case with the pandemic.

Decorative

Place confinement during the pandemic led to a process known as habit discontinuity, which is a break or ‘discontinuation’ of everyday habits, and forced many people to modify their lifestyles. Main lifestyle changes included leaving communal office spaces to work from home, added use of virtual communication, and the use of face masks in public places.

Decorative

The majority of new behaviours that were picked up during the pandemic fell into the two major categories of pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours. Even those who did not intentionally seek to take on these new behaviours were forced to adopt them due to government-enforced restrictions. For instance, while no student willingly chose their mode of education this year, it is evident that a large number of students are receiving primarily virtual instruction.  

As people continued performing these new behaviours and living a new way of life, they were consequently able to receive rewards for their actions, whether it be financial, altruistic, environmental, or health-related. In turn, the rewards promoted people to retain and continue living their new ways of life in their existing environment. The whole process ultimately led to people gaining a sense of appreciation for their newly adapted habit and environment and promoted wellbeing while decreasing the feelings of distress they set out to initially cope with. 

Schematic of Process

The schematic of the overall process described above (Image Source: Ramkissoon, 2020)

Now, while the framework proposed by Ramkissoon is a sound process, it is important to note that there always lies exceptions. For instance, even one year after the pandemic, when numerous studies have confirmed the efficacy of mask-wearing, there still exist people who possess opposing sentiments and don’t believe in the benefits of masks. Additionally, more and more people have now begun to break social-distancing rules and revert to more ‘normal’, pre-COVID behaviours.

This brings up an inherent weakness of the proposed framework since it diminishes the power of perceptible rewards earned by behavioural changes during the pandemic. A valuable question then is were the rewards being received really perceptible enough to drive behavioural changes? Or were there some other factors at play? One possible explanation for this dilemma might be that the people were only performing the behaviours because they were forced to by governmental rules and policies, and other COVID-19 safety concerns. Thus, the behavioural changes occurring during COVID-19 and the motivations driving those behaviours is an intriguing topic that warrants further research. 

As the author explains, this framework is also not universally applicable to all populations:

“The proposed model socio-economically favored social sectors whose survival is not as threatened by the pandemic as the poor sectors where wellbeing (and mental health) are at high risk.”

Importance of Behaviours 

Both pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours had benefits that highlight the importance of incorporating such behaviour into an individual’s life. As mentioned, pro-social behaviours also aided in decreasing loneliness and allowed people to feel closer to others. Unsurprisingly, besides social media apps like TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook, dating apps such as Tinder and Hinge also saw an increase in users as the COVID restrictions were put into place. This shows that people were not only looking to mend and depend on their old relationships but also looking to establish new ones. Collectively, pro-environmental and pro-social behaviours allowed individuals to gain a stronger bond with their community and home environments which has improved their well-being. 

Throughout this whole process, technology remained a key aspect of promoting pro-social behaviours without putting individuals at risk. In addition to establishing personal connections, technology also permitted the continuation of work in many crucial industries. Many industries have by now adapted to working largely remotely. For instance, the government of Canada now allows individuals to renew their health cards and driver’s licenses completely online — a service not previously offered. 

Virtual Activity Increase over COVID

Zoom and Slack saw significant increases in activity with the onset of pandemic restrictions worldwide (Image Source: MarketWatch)

Moving Forward

It is important to recognize that many people are now beginning to abandon these adopted behaviours as they grow careless about the seriousness of the pandemic restrictions and as governments start to loosen restrictions. This has consequently resulted in a second or even third wave of COVID in many countries. Therefore, it is imperative to promote the continuation of virtual pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours while still avoiding the risk of the virus spreading. 

One solution posed by researchers consists of targeted interventions from governments to enforce these behaviours. Local, provincial, and federal governments need to adopt a mutually agreed-upon approach that would promote benefits of the pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours, and highlight the household and community behaviours that have led to the observable benefits. An example of this intervention campaign could be highlighting the positive impact pro-environmental behaviours have had on the economy. 

Similar actions can also be adopted for the ongoing vaccine roll-out. As Canada transitions from phase 1 priority populations vaccine roll-out into phase 2, it is vital for the government to collectively promote the efficacy of vaccines in order to maximize the number of people vaccinated.

The successful vaccine roll-out by Israel is an excellent example of how social media campaigns and mass media was used to promote vaccination. An important component of their vaccine roll-out included tailored messaging to target different populations such as religious leaders that communicated the messages to Muslim and Jew populations. Similarly, Canada could also retrieve assistance from a unique range of public leaders such as social media influencers, trusted medical professionals, and religious leaders.

COVID-19 Immunization Plan

Timeline of British Columbia’s COVID-19 Immunization (Image Source: gov.bc.ca)

As previously mentioned, social media will play a key part in this whole process since it has seen a drastic increase in activity during the pandemic. Hence, using social media as the primary promotion tool would have far-reaching benefits as it would allow the government to reach a large proportion of the population. Additionally, while multilateral cooperation would’ve been significantly beneficial during the pandemic, it is obvious that this is difficult to foster—otherwise, global tensions and world issues such as famine and climate change would be issues of the past. So it would be foolish of me as a writer to provide this as a solution. However, national cooperation does seem like more of a realistic solution that allows for integrated strategic planning. 

Author

Combating Social Isolation: Behavioural Changes During COVID-19
He a little confused, but he got the spirit || University of Western Ontario