It is obvious to state that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our whole ways of life. It is akin to a paradigm shift resulting in new practices, thoughts, and systems, and thus altered existence. While it is easy to map more quantifiable changes, such as the more apparent physiological effects on our bodies and health, the up and down movement in the economy, and even the political ramifications having global dimensions, it becomes necessary to locate those insidious psychological changes. We no longer live within the same social fabric as we used to before the pandemic, and this transformed society has led to new behaviors and emotions. In this, the idea of ‘social distancing,’ which has become a standard protocol and a constant echo in all the social interactions post-COVID-19, is a critical factor in aggravating feelings of loneliness and isolation. This article will try to trace these shifted behavioral patterns in a post-pandemic society, which are causing deep psychological problems.
There has been a widespread belief that the pandemic enabled familial proximity and quality time as it forced family members to spend long hours together. This is also linked with a newfound appreciation of family, simple pleasures in life, and one’s health. However, a prevailing trend that emerged is the ‘work-from-home’ culture. This, during the height of the pandemic, was the need of the hour to ensure one’s safety. But this trend has continued even after the fear of the disease has somewhat subdued. Workers find this convenient: time-saving, monetarily beneficial, and flexible. The employers also seem to support this as it allows them to hire more people without the required infrastructure and to hold unfixed working hours. This continued support from workers and employers for this trend is based on these material advantages where the social import of this decision is overlooked.
The ‘work-from-home’ practice has induced a sort of lethargy in people where they are reluctant to meet and know their colleagues. This prevents forming of meaningful interpersonal relations among employees to create a solid social matrix. Mimi Nguyen argues, in her article, that this hurts the team spirit of a company: “Individuals employed on creative projects in virtual teams reported feeling more like a ‘worker,’ and less like a member of a family.” People no longer feel connected with their peers and live in their isolated bubbles. This has prompted a hesitation in reaching out to the people they work with, affecting their confidence, a lack of social and emotional release through casual socializing in the office space, and monotony in their work due to unchanged surroundings.
Furthermore, it has often been asserted that this virtual working style allows people to have global connections as companies can hire people from anywhere in the world, not restricted by the requirements of the place. Yet, these connections are often hollow as they are limited to the knowledge of each other’s names and pictures. Each person is reduced to their two-dimensional representation on the screen, fostering synthetic forms of interaction. The negative effect of such interactions on individuals is extended to the overall working of the company as well. A Harvard Business Review article lists the concerns related to the ‘work-from-home’ approach: “However, concerns persist regarding how WFA affects communication, including brainstorming and problem-solving; knowledge sharing; socialization, camaraderie, and mentoring; performance evaluation and compensation; and data security and regulation.” Ultimately, the social framework formulated by such online work culture is detrimental to the growth of an individual’s personality and the overall harmony of the company.
The dictate of social distancing has permeated the personal sphere of the people as well. It is not just the professional environment that has adapted to the new rules of social existence, but these altered social experiences mark even the general and the personal. It is true that the social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and so on predate the pandemic. However, their relevance has increased in the post-COVID-19 scenario. Initially, health concerns made all forms of socializing shift to online means, but slowly they are becoming normative. Sitting at home, sending reels to your friends, occasionally chatting with them through IM facilities, and liking each other’s posts seem more convenient than putting yourself physically out there. It has become habit-forming for people to sustain these virtual relationships where the prospect of real meetings seems uncomfortable, awkward, and even jarring. The more personal and intimate bonds are now replaced by these inauthentic and superfluous interactions that do not promote closeness among people.
Overall, people have internalized this idea of creating distance between themselves and others. Since the pandemic, people have been bombarded by this constant injunction of ‘social distancing’ as part of the COVID-19 awareness program: in the form of plaques at public places, voice messages on phones, social media posts, and news programs. This has influenced people’s behavior as they have imbibed this wariness towards others. There is a general inclination towards distance as people have started using personal vehicles (instead of shared commuting), wearing masks which increase anonymity, and attempting to sit far away from others in shared spaces like restaurants, public vehicles, movie theatres, malls, hospitals, and so on. This circumvents random social exchanges and thus increases the feeling of isolation.
The psychological impact of such heightened social distancing cannot be dismissed easily. It has succeeded and added to the pessimism of the pandemic when people were losing their loved ones, were stuck in different places, and were filled with uncertainty over a disrupted life. This extreme despondency is replaced in the post-pandemic world by an emptiness that cannot be filled in this new regime. There has been a creation of a cocoon for individuals where they are separated by each other into their worlds, connected to the world only through a screen. It creates an emotional vacuum, distance, and loneliness. Even spending prolonged time with family has not resulted in quality family time as each individual is hooked on to their separate screens for their jobs, education, online gaming, streaming, socializing, and so on.
In the end, it can be said that there is a constant impulse to adjust to the new normal to embrace the post-pandemic ways of living. However, the question arises: do we need to accept this uncritically? Should we not make an effort to reorient our social spaces disturbed by the demands of the pandemic? It is ultimately necessary to bridge the gaps among people created in our social matrix in the aftermath of the pandemic. Only then can emotional and psychological wholeness be fostered.
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