Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Curing Our Moral Virus of LonelinessCuring Our Moral Virus of Loneliness

Curing Our Moral Virus of Loneliness

As Prime Minister Trudeau urges Canadians abroad to come home and his cabinet ministers press to reduce the size of permissible gatherings, Convivium contributor Keith Dow encourages us to be aware of the needs of our neighbours. 

Keith Dow
5 minute read

The other day I picked up a cheese-making starter kit for my wife, Darcie. The kit was over an hour’s drive away, cost more than I’d like to admit, and will require a lot of work to prepare. Darcie is excited to make our own cheese, though! 

I don’t know much about making cheese. But I do know that specific kinds of bacteria are needed for certain varieties. To cultivate bacteria in a healthy way means having the right environment, one where good bacteria grows but bad bacteria cannot. Good bacteria require proper cultivation.

Bacteria and viruses are different in many ways, but viruses, like bacteria, can be important beneficial microbes in human health and in agriculture. SARS-CoV-2 (a new virus) is currently spreading rapidly across the globe, causing COVID-19 (the illness) in our communities. It is an understatement to say that this is not a good virus. We call bacteria and viruses “good” or “bad” depending upon whether they have a beneficial effect. Neither bacteria or viruses are morally good or bad, though. They are just doing what they are programmed to do – survive. 

Today, moral viruses are spreading even quicker than the latest coronavirus: Viruses of fear, xenophobia, ageism, distrust, and loneliness. Our societal environment has been primed for the spread of these viruses. It is often claimed that loneliness has reached “epidemic” proportions – though with its prevalence across multiple countries and continents it should more rightly be called a loneliness pandemic

Last year’s Angus Reid Institute research confirms that Canadians are not immune. These moral viruses converge on people in exponential ways: Elderly people who are new Canadians or immigrants, people with disabilities with pre-existing health conditions, small business owners struggling to keep their shop afloat while facing prejudice because of their ethnicity. The intersections of ethnicity, age, poverty, disability, and compromised health magnify experiences of social isolation and loneliness. In turn, the adverse effects of loneliness and marginalization lead to further economic and health challenges.

In my time with Christian Horizons, I have gotten to know many people who experience marginalization and ostracization due to societal perceptions about intellectual disability. Many of the people who use our services are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to pre-existing medical conditions and/or their age. However, many also demonstrate exemplary virtues and qualities of what it means to be human together in times of disruption and fear. In times such as this we need, more than ever, to remain connected with friends and community members who remind us of the real-world impact of the coronavirus on people who experience marginalization. Perhaps even more, we need to be reminded of the human courage and strength that can rise up in the face of such global panic and fear.

Similarly, the 4,000 or so direct support professionals working with Christian Horizons – like so many in the helping professions – demonstrate qualities of patience, compassion, and intuitive care that are vitally needed in times like this. These are the qualities that must spread virally in our communities. Community care helps to vaccinate us against “isms” and fear-based reactions. 

Physical distancing and actions sometimes seen as radical are imperative to “flatten the curve” and give vulnerable populations and healthcare providers the space needed to care well

However, these do not necessitate a kind of “social distance” that further marginalizes vulnerable people and perpetuates the loneliness pandemic. Practical and courageous practices of compassion and solidarity can be contagious as well. Attitudes of care can spread rapidly beyond the confines of our hospitals and social services and into our streets and neighbourhoods. 

What if this time of crisis, rather than merely setting the stage for heightened mortality concerns and fear-based withdrawal, offers the perfect environment to cultivate care in our neighbourhoods? 

What if, rather than piling on the latest ageist Twitter trend like “boomer remover,” we creatively inject our neighbourhoods with acts of kindness and compassion? 

Rather than buying up the last rolls of toilet paper for ourselves, what if we bought them for the elderly widow down the street who missed the memo that Charmin was the hottest product on the market?

Let’s do the hard work of cultivating community care. The time is right, but we will need ruthless sterilization of our temptation to panic and to judge others. Like crafting fine cheese, we will need to share a good “starter culture” in an environment devoid of bad bacteria. 

What are some of the signs of hope in your neighbourhood? How have you seen people been “come together” – often virtually – to combat the increasing threat of isolation and loneliness? How might this be a time when those who have been most marginalized are recognized as vital contributors and members of the human family? Many immune-compromised people, for example, have been training for years in the skills our society needs right now to avoid further dissemination of COVID-19.

Darcie is not only an amateur cheesemaker, but also a trained epidemiologist. It has been many years since she worked in the field, dedicating her time instead to raising and teaching our three children. 

Some things never leave you, though. Together we have developed a rough (and by no means exhaustive or prescriptive) “preparedness plan” for our family. She contributed epidemiological insights and I chimed in where I could as a moral ethicist and theologian. We set out to think of a general approach that looks to not only our own needs as a family, but the needs of our friends and community. 

What are the opportunities for connection and support in a time like this, not only the challenges and threats? You can have a look our plan here, if you’d like. We also printed off quick notes for our neighbours that say:

“Hi neighbours, it’s Keith and Darcie from down the road. In light of the fact that some of us are likely to get sick from COVID-19 in the next little while and need to stay home in isolation, we just wanted you to have our number and email address. If you run out of supplies like toilet paper or need someone to pick up groceries and drop them off at your door – we’re happy to help out as much as we can.”

This isn’t a big act. It didn’t cost us anything or require much work. Since sharing the idea, though, we’ve seen friends replicate it in their neighbourhoods, and other friends pick up the idea from them. It has rapidly spread and mutated in creative and resilient ways. Others around the world are sharing their own variations on this theme. 

Together we work to cultivate communities of care, neighbourhoods with the internal competency to address crises and to celebrate growth for years to come. 

In the coming days and weeks, some courageous acts will come at great cost – an even higher cost than a cheese-making starter kit. After this virus has passed and a healthy culture has matured and spread throughout our neighbourhoods, though, we will look back and see that the cost was well worth the effort. 

We may even discover that we are all a little less lonely and a little less fearful, nourished by stories and rich relationships that sustain us and our communities for years to come.

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