In this blog, chair of the Campaign to End Loneliness and charity campaigner Paul Cann, looks at how we can continue to encourage connected and caring communities after the pandemic has subsided.

The virus has killed and harmed far too many. Perhaps it has also brought out the best in us. So many acts of kindness, such a wealth of charitable effort, special funds deployed so swiftly. 

How shall we keep this wave of empathy rolling when we are no longer fixated by the flashing blue light of the pandemic, and are absorbed back into our daily to-do lists?

Locked into narrow corridors of experience, many of us discovered firsthand what was always there: the prison of isolation nudging us into loneliness.

This always was reality for many older people or disabled people living alone or struggling to connect. Now made even worse by inequalities such as the outrageous digital divide, with two-thirds of women over-75 not online. For people who can afford it and are comfortable using it, digital technologies have provided fun and fulfilment for many. But what about those left behind?

The new normal

Happily, we sense that we could make the “new normal” a kinder place to live, not just a state of acceptance of long-term constraint. We could make this happen.

First, by giving ourselves permission to go beyond the script of our habitual stilted contact and communication. 

In lockdown we’ve smiled at one other (two metres apart), spoken to strangers, and enjoyed those momentary flashes of kindred spirit; a super-elongated version of harsh winters where we experience ‘snow permissions’, and for a day or two clear the pavements of needy neighbours.

But isn’t this how we should always live? Because as Vivek Murthy, Barack Obama’s Surgeon General, and an expert on loneliness says in his new book ‘Together’:

“People are hard to hate close up”

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation examined what makes for kinder communities. They found that kinder places, where reaching out, taking time out to chat to half-strangers, looking out for the customer who doesn’t show up were a key part of their identity, and: “Just what we do here”.

All managers of supermarkets, banks, coffee-shops brands and other community presences could rediscover the real magic of what they do.    

The hyper-local

Secondly, there is an opportunity for government, funders and public authorities to prize the ‘hyper-local’:  local neighbourhoods who know their streets and are trusted by their residents.  Many neighbours are dying to volunteer their energy and goodwill. Local businesses are only too willing to lend a hand, for reasons of genuine kindness as well as market profile.  We need help from the bigger players to publicise local organisations and celebrate what tiny community groups are doing.

The digital divide

There’s plenty for national agencies and campaigners to do meanwhile. The unfairness of digital exclusion is alive and ill.  It’s not just about kit and money.  Fear and distrust of technology are far more significant barriers. 

Great that in lockdown we have once again made full use of the telephone. But how much better if we made phones, and all the experiences available down phone lines, work for those who currently find the online world baffling and alien.

Poverty and disadvantage

Work to combat exclusion and loneliness will always be compromised by the giant evils of poverty and disadvantage.  Lower income is closely linked to greater loneliness. Have we gone soft on the scandals of 5 million (and rising) children living in poverty? Have those of us caring about nearly 2 million older people living below the poverty line been pushed back by a rising tide of inter-generational animosity and a message that they’ve never had it so good?

We have more in common

Thirdly, for the images of the media, the press releases of corporations and the language of politicians and leaders to transmit the message that we do have more in common than that which divides us.  

And organisations who offer funding or who set policy need the right mindset. In their energy for change, to resist the temptation to ordain.  From good intentions governments and funders search to reveal the solution to loneliness. 

There must be a new idea or a golden secret which will unlock communities and bring happiness. Is it a telephone helpline?  Is it men in sheds?  Is it younger people befriending older? There is a worthy hunger to latch on to “scalable initiatives” to use the jargon.

But there isn’t one magic bullet.  The answer is all of the above. Let a million communities decide how their own chosen flowers bloom.  Let every public and private agency enable the tiny groups to reach people, and not disable them with dodgy pavements or poor community transport. 

Above all, four years on from her murder, let’s all live out Jo Cox’s heartfelt message #moreincommon and sidestep that (sadly common) impulse towards tribalism. 

The answer is not in our stars but in ourselves.  As the new Connection Coalition says, community makes us.