What did the pandemic do to friendships?

By Indira Laisram
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Image used for representational purposes only // Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

When COVID-19 came along, the mantra to get by for almost everyone was, “We are all in this together”. But as the lockdown and the pandemic slipped into days, weeks, months and a year, these have been testing times especially in the realm of friendships. While some friendships have had a deeper acceptance, some died along the way—an erratic mix of emotions that perhaps only a pandemic could bring out.

Take Sue Drummond, a counsellor and social worker. She says while the pandemic allowed her to appreciate true friends, it also hastened the demise of a longstanding friendship as it has highlighted very different values between her friend and herself.

“I was surprised my friend felt that we were being lied to by the government and that the lockdowns were about controlling the population, rather than safety. I am vaccinated and have followed medical advice whilst my friend (who is not a scientist either) has not become vaccinated and has been regularly posting the anti-lockdown rallies in Melbourne and stating Dan is a dictator on her posts. It was a bridge too far when she posted video of people with American flags at a recent rally and reposted from a well-known right-wing figure. As a Jewish woman, I am disgusted by some of this cohort describing those not vaxxed as like Jews during the holocaust,” rues Drummond.

The issue of vaccination has indeed changed the tenor of some friendships. It is, as what some say, the last whiff of the pandemic in reshaping friendships. Rajkumari*, a healthcare professional says she had to gently uninvite an unvaccinated friend from a home party. “It was not just about a difference of opinion on vaccines but about a rift in values,” she reflects.

Sue Drummond

But not just Rajkumari, the question of vaccination, some believe will threaten friendships for a long time to come.

Drummond says she tried to discuss the differing views with her friend but now realises, “We have a moral divide. I am trying to understand these views, but, sadly, I feel as if we cannot repair this rupture. We come from the two sides of my friend’s libertarian view of individual choice and my views about getting vaccinated is a responsibility to the community. I feel many people have been influenced by misinformation on social media which exploits the communities’ already heightened fear. But I would welcome a compassionate discussion at some point”.

When the first wave of the virus hit the world last year, there were reports about people suffering from loneliness as lockdowns changed the way people socialise. In fact, loneliness expert Dr Michelle Lim, of Swinburne University of Technology, claimed in his research that one in two Australians reported feeling lonely during the first lockdown. In Britain and the US, the ratio was two out of three.

Shubhra Aurita Roy, a resident of Canberra, agrees some people struggled a lot as their friendship was predicated on face-to-face engagement sitting together.

Yet some others, on condition of anonymity, expressed experiencing extreme loneliness due to the restrictions in social get-togethers and in-person contact.

Shubhra Roy

While developing a coping mechanism is perhaps a very individual response, there were some for whom social media helped to an extent.

“If you are reasonably tech savvy, it will not matter so much if you are unable to meet face to face. You can make do without for a while at least. Some of my closest friends are those I haven’t met for years now but we have a deep and abiding friendship that transcends space and time,” says Roy.

Agrees Jenny Davidson, a healthcare professional in regional Victoria. Living in the small town of Tocumwal, Davidson says social media kept her connected with her friends and helped overcome loneliness. “It made no difference not seeing my friends physically. The thing that binds us together is our past shared experiences and values that we have. We kept in touch by social media and the thought that if we needed anything we would be there for each other. We share laughter, love and they say trouble shared is a trouble halved.”

That apart, she also found herself having more moments of gratitude. “A friend became very important during lockdown when we were only allowed limited visits by anyone and staying within our local government area. Our next-door neighbour, Peter, who lives alone with all his family living interstate, became part of our family unit. Peter was unable to go to work, so he and my husband Ross worked together during the day at home and he stayed for lunch most days.”

Jenny Davidson

Another friendship that blossomed was with a friend from her Tai Chi class and Garden Club. “We were on the phone constantly, messaging and on Facebook. We grew cuttings and planted hanging baskets for the Anti-Cancer Council Annual Fundraiser. She was able to raise over $700. We were able to visit the Garden Centre (essential service) for growing vegetables and for both of us, our mental health. When we could travel in our local government area, we would have a husband free day and go for a drive to get a cup of coffee. It gave us a chance to let off steam and laugh about our collective problems.”

But enduring friendships do occupy that contradiction between absence and urgency. Sathish*, a software programmer, who lives by himself in the CBD, had his occasional group of friends with whom he played badminton and socialised. Once the lockdown came, the friends just drifted apart. He calls these a friendship of convenience, the demise of which really did not affect him mentally.

For Sathish, the pandemic also reoriented his focus on who he wanted to keep in touch—whether online or offline and who he didn’t want to.

If the dissipation of friendships became a reality, the bonds also got deeper for some through Covid. Cherry Malik, an entrepreneur based in Delhi, says, “We were all traversing the same paths of uncertainty, fear for our parents, fear for each other… the concern for the wellbeing of your friends became more acute during Covid as everyone I knew went through the stages of fear, uncertainty, and, ultimately, Covid fatigue.”

As life returns to a semblance of normalcy, albeit slowly, has ‘friendscape’ become more narrowed or has the aspirations become more realistic?

Roy says, “As soon as the restrictions on physical distancing lifted, my friends and I were eager to catch up. We organised picnics, walks and outdoor activities. We were not only eager to meet but also to connect in nature, in the outdoors. Being sensitive and understanding, being there for each other has been quite important to me and my friends.

Davidson recognises that work and family fulfills her more. “Going back to work has been a benefit and resuming my friendships as it was before Covid is a privilege to be savoured.”

No doubt, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on people—some have lost loved ones. Sadly, some friendships also did not survive a trajectory—something the pandemic is helping us learn!

(* Names changed on conditions of anonymity)

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