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Lavinia Menegoni writes:

At this time, social distancing is characterising our lives more and more. From smart-working to home-schooling, the measures adopted by governments to contain the rapid spread of Covid-19 are having knock-on effects on our lifestyle and habits, forcing us into this new, isolated kind of reality.

Of course, our sense of community and belonging is being affected as well. Whereas before, the very act of gathering was something key, something central to this sense of belonging, it has now been transformed into something that potentially undermines some of the fundamental values of a community, first and foremost, the value of mutual protection and respect.  Strange as it sounds, a hug or a kiss – some of the most powerful acts of caring and sharing – are now forbidden, potentially harmful.

How do we cope with these two polarities – namely, the sense of collectivity and the impossibility of fulfilling it – having been deprived of the actual foundation of collectivity itself, which is social bonding? Technology is now of great advantage, a key resource that enables us to maintain a certain amount of community engagement and to transfer social bonding to a virtual space. From Zoom calls to online groups of mutual support, new ways of interacting with each other are proliferating on the internet. But despite efforts to keep community bonds alive, there are people and groups who, for one reason or another, are excluded from this new, digital reality.

That of course creates an imbalance, in which differences put at risk the notion of an all-inclusive community. One of the core values of St Ethelburga’s has always been to forge a community across differences. We now have to rethink that value in light of the current situation, considering the impact of social distancing on those who are not easily connected to the cyber space. Distance has become a mark of difference: exposing the varying degree to which people can remain connected and close to loved ones, friends, faith communities and so on.

I wonder, for example, about the accessibility of online communities for the elderly – an isolated, high-risk group who need social connection. A few days ago I spoke to my grandmother in Italy, where the entire country is in lockdown. The thing she lamented the most, after almost two weeks of confinement, was loneliness. Yes, she was taking telephone calls, but the thing she missed was seeing faces. She, like many others, needs to look a person in the eye to consider a social interaction substantive. So, guiding her via telephone, we managed to activate a webcam she did not even know she had. Miraculous! It was beautiful: unbelievable and yet so real. She seemed so surprised, so happy, for a moment it felt close enough to hug.

I have been an expat for years, but until that moment, had never succeeded in video-calling my granny. Not even once. The skills she found she had, in a moment of crisis, were unexpected. It is a simple thing, but life changing. This resonates with another core value of St Ethelburga’s: to find opportunity in crisis. Something which seemed impossible until some weeks ago is reality now: human beings can muster extraordinary strength and resourcefulness when times are tough. Human beings can always find space for evolution, improvement, resourcefulness.

Finding ways to help other people connect to the virtual world is more crucial now than ever. Our efforts should be directed towards including those who are still excluded from this new reality, where human contact must pass through a screen. This could be done in several ways.

Calling a neighbour to guide them onto online platforms is a good place to start. It could alleviate loneliness and help them find a community they feel they have lost. In addition, many churches are now streaming services in order to maintain fellowship with their congregations. But despite their great efforts, I imagine that many of those who used to sit in the front pew each Sunday will be excluded from this new reality. Paradoxically, many of those who were central to their congregations will now be cut off, creating a fracture in the community, an involuntary exclusion caused not by discrimination, but by circumstance.

Mutual help and support is vital during these uncertain times, as it is only through the creation of a shared space, accessible to everybody and where everyone is welcome, that a community, solid and cohesive, can be created.

Lavinia Menegoni is a Research and Communications Assistant at St Ethelburga’s, where she has led on the research and content curation for an exhibition on the history of St Ethelburga’s, due to launch in the summer. Born and raised in Rome, she holds an MA in Buddhist Studies from SOAS University and is forging a career in the sectors of interfaith and Buddhist studies.

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