The impact of the pandemic on global cultures, and the dramatic social restrictions it necessitated, cannot be overstated.
We all watched as borders, schools and offices shut down. And although many countries have since moved on from a state of total lockdown, daily routines remain stuck in limbo – tethered to the ebb and flow of COVID cases.
Globally, lives have been turned inwards and accordingly cultural behaviours have been reshaped. Many of these changes were – thankfully- transient adaptations to the severity of the situation. However, others could be here to stay…
In the wake of social distancing, all community practices were halted. From small recreational habits that provide routine and structure in the day to day, to ceremonies that bestow a rite of passage.
The absence of these events has left many individuals feeling disconnected from their immediate and wider communities. For those in the most desperate circumstances, policies regulating funeral guests robbed millions of a tradition that is critical to the grieving process.
It feels as if even the etiquette of daily interactions is under siege. With physical barriers such as masks and the pressure to stand ample distance from one another when interacting, or merely passing on a narrow street, social formalities have been transformed.
Without facial expressions and with the muffled intonation of mask wearers, there is much more pressure on our choice of words to articulate meaning.
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The shift is also evident in the business world. Social distancing has initiated the demise of the handshake – a longstanding, transnational symbol of respect and co-operation.
The absence of corporeal society has left many to seek out a sense of community online, through the means of social media. A shift has occurred from the ‘local’ to what has been dubbed the ‘hyper-local’ in which groups use digital infrastructures such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype to organise aid within their communities.
Of course, locality is no limit for the internet and community aid has exceeded geographical confines. The power that social media has given to grassroots ‘hyper- local’ activism can be evidenced in the Black Lives Matter movement. It connected millions of people globally and emoted them to protest against institutional racism across the Western world.
Eastern cultures, specifically China, have seen a revolution of their own. Once again, powered by the internet and those brave enough to speak out, China has begun to address its mental health emergency.
Mental health issues have long been stigmatised in Chinese culture. In the late 1960s, Mao Zedong outlawed psychiatry branding it as a gratuitous bourgeois invention. Now, as more than a third of the population admit to suffering from symptoms of insomnia, anxiety and depression, the government has been forced to act.
But the statistics are overwhelming. How can a population of 1.3 billion people be treated by only 15,000 trained psychiatrists? How can they remedy a culture that refuses to acknowledge it is suffering? It’s a tall order but operations are in place.
The government have set up hotlines, apps have been developed, and schools are screening students for symptoms of insomnia and depression.
Similarly, in India a charitable helpline called iCALL is shining a light on the psycho-social impact of COVID-19. The website of iCALL offers a break-down of various symptoms under the subdivisions ‘Sad’ and ‘Hopeless’. The phoneline provides counselling from individuals who are trained to assist the intensely vulnerable.
The goal, alongside offering immediate care to those in crisis, is to educate. The website emphasises the importance of understanding and monitoring negative feelings. This enables individuals to learn how to respond.
It recommends practical measures such as exercise and creative expression. But it holds with equally high regard more theoretical, spiritual efforts including acceptance and meditation.
Another astonishing behavioural change is a post pandemic growth in leadership qualities at a local, personal level. Unfortunately, the trend did pass over to government level.
This development saw its most significant rise in Russia. The survey ‘Social Well-Being of Russians’ unravels the 5% increase that took place in 2020 in people’s self-perceived social influence. The nation’s confidence in their influence at work mirrored their impact at home, at 45% each.
This development, occurring during the pandemic, seems to suggest that the return to a more localised community has prompted many to take an interest in civil society. Not only are more people taking an interest, they are exercising their influence and participating in local authority.
Communities have faced stark challenges throughout the pandemic. The staples of everyday life that we took for granted were lost. Time passed over the rites of passage that deserved ceremonial recognition.
But not all was lost. In this period of displacement we found a chance to assess our lives and the communities we belong to. All around the world from government to grassroots, people have identified opportunities for improvement and have begun to implement the infrastructure necessary for these changes to take place.