As COVID-19 pandemic weakens bridges between diverse groups, swift government action is needed to strengthen social cohesion
BRUSSELS — The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly altered the ways and places in which people interact. Early evidence suggests that bridges between groups are weakening, as the closure of key pillars of public life, including schools and libraries, reduced casual encounters that once fostered connection between disparate groups. Instead, interactions have been concentrated within existing networks.
While new, creative forms of virtual socialization emerged, virus mitigation efforts may have intensified longstanding challenges in building social cohesion and bridging divisions in migrant-receiving societies, a new Migration Policy Institute Europe report finds.
The spillover effects of pandemic mitigation efforts on societal health have yet to be fully understood. But the report, Solidarity in Isolation? Social Cohesion at a Time of Physical Distance, offers an early assessment of the impact on social cohesion in Europe and North America by looking at two dimensions of intergroup dynamics: social capital (the networks between and among groups that facilitate cooperation) and social infrastructure (the physical places and services that bring people together and thus create the conditions for social bonds).
"The collective threat posed by COVID-19 has required an unprecedented level of social solidarity in long-polarized and individualized societies," analysts Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan and Aliyyah Ahad write. "But while the pandemic has put everyone in the same storm, they are not necessarily in the same boat."
Beyond weakened bonds between groups, the report spotlights two other trends:
- The fact that virtual immigrant integration activities are imperfect substitutes for social connection. Integration programs have slowly made the leap to the online world, but digital tools often fail to fully recreate the benefits of in-person interaction and further exclude those with limited receiving-country language proficiency, weaker local information networks, less familiarity with technology and limited access to electronic devices or the internet.
- New forms of solidarity in isolation have emerged but may not last. Bursts of mutual aid and volunteering have offered a crucial lifeline to people in need, but their spontaneity may also be a barrier to long-term sustainability. Patchwork solutions forged in crisis may be better suited to the provision of emergency assistance than to addressing deeper structural needs.
To prevent the further erosion of social capital and infrastructure, the authors recommend building into recovery plans a range of initiatives that strengthen social cohesion. Evidence shows that communities with high levels of social capital and trust weathered the public health crisis better than areas lacking robust support networks. Thus, government action to rebuild links between different segments of society, including through consultative decision-making processes, serves both community interests and wider crisis prevention efforts.
The authors also recommend that policymakers consider the potential for concerns over allocations when making resource decisions. Given the collective impact of the pandemic and lockdown measures, policies that mainstream relief to all vulnerable groups, such as sector-wide assistance programs or ones based on material conditions, could help ease allocation concerns. It may also be important to demonstrate investment in community "commons," such as parks and libraries, which may have broader appeal.
"To minimize the potential social damage from this prolonged period of lockdown, it is vital that social cohesion be prioritized during the recovery, both in terms of when and how parts of the social infrastructure are reopened and in how decisions are made and who is consulted," the authors write. "Missing this opportunity could turn this health crisis into a much longer and more profound social one."
The report is the latest from MPI Europe's Integration Futures Working Group, which brings together policymakers and experts, civil-society officials and private-sector leaders to create a platform for long-term strategic and creative thinking. The Working Group is supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/solidarity-isolation-social-cohesion.
And earlier ones in the Integration Futures series can be found here: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/integration-futures-working-group.