Social skills at risk due to lockdown isolation
For as long as I can remember, my default WhatsApp status has been: “Please don’t call if you can WhatsApp.” In normal times, I did not answer any calls. I was connected instantly with my family and friends through multiple social platforms, but we hardly ever spoke. I strongly believed that, because we live in an age of rapid exchanges of messages, I did not need to call my friends to ask about their days. Instead I could easily check their updates on Instagram or Snapchat.
Before coronavirus lockdowns began, our schedules were overwhelmed with running errands, reporting for work, planning play dates and binge-watching on Netflix. No one had the time for long phone calls and, when we met, our phones followed suit. It is certain that, with time, we may have grown more connected, but really we were growing distant.
As of this moment, about a third of the world’s population is living in some form of lockdown. That is some 2.6 billion people. There are restrictions on leaving home; people cannot go to their offices or aimlessly walk the streets; they have not seen their loved ones; they cannot visit their local cafes or buy from their local vendors. People’s one-to-one interactions have been reduced to a few “hellos” with neighbors if they are lucky enough to have balconies. Some have not spoken to another individual in days, if not weeks.
If we were growing distant before, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has accelerated our social and interpersonal distance, perhaps forever. Those of us in quarantine suffered greatly at the beginning from anxiety and frustration. Yet, as days turned into weeks, our bodies and minds began to adjust. Staying home became the new norm. We moved our furniture around and began exercising in our living rooms through our smartphone applications; we struggled with homeschooling our children in the morning; we attempted gardening in the afternoon to reduce our stress. Eventually, we managed to settle in.
Amid all the reports and projections of how the pandemic will reshape our lives, workplaces and economies, it is easy to overlook how our ability to communicate with one another and work together will be impacted in the future.
COVID-19 has ushered in a new wave of self-management. It will undoubtedly change working and learning systems as we know them. We will have no excuse but to provide options that are more flexible to workers and begin to reduce office space. We will see fewer of our colleagues and instead create our own little working nooks at home. But could this new-found flexibility impact us negatively?
For starters, social distancing and self-isolation can disrupt our mental health. If we work from home, connect from home and run all our errands from the comfort of our couches, we are inevitably reducing our social interactions, which could have physical and mental health repercussions. Understanding these effects, governments, civil society groups, experts and practitioners have quickly produced numerous campaigns to help us deal with our isolation during the pandemic. From Japan to the UAE, countries have rallied to launch online programs to provide mental health support. In the UAE, for example, the National Program for Happiness and Wellbeing launched a campaign to help individuals overcome the psychological impacts of the coronavirus and provide them with tips from experts to help build their coping skills and mental resilience.
Pandemic lockdowns could further cement the idea of individuality and isolation. They will affect our connectivity and influence our creativity. We could lose our motivation and drive.
The World Economic Forum has previously outlined that the 10 future skills required for work include emotional intelligence, interpersonal communication skills, leadership skills, decision-making, and creativity. Future jobs will require the ability to collaborate, communicate better and be empathetic.
It is easy to overlook how our ability to communicate with one another and work together will be impacted in the future.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
So what will that mean for us in the long run? What will become of our individuality? Will we become increasingly isolated? And, if we do, how will that threaten our future skills, our intelligence, our ability to communicate and relate? We already seem to have become increasingly apathetic — will we be devoid of emotions? Could it mean that we will become less creative and innovative? How big a challenge will it be to our interpersonal development?
As we ride the wave of this pandemic and begin to regain a sense of normalcy, we will slowly attempt to get our lives back to the way they were when they were suddenly halted. COVID-19 will unquestionably change governmental systems and priorities. Despite our urgent desire to go back to what used to be our normal, nothing will be the same again. The combined effects of years of social disengagement and the current isolation will force us to lose some of our most crucial social and softer skills.
When this pandemic is over and I will finally be able to drive my car around my city again, I may not change my WhatsApp status, but I will most definitely drive to see my loved ones.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik