Chaitanya Sama (from left) Melanie Westover, Alok Deshpande and Alicia Correa are shown in this recent handout photo taken during a Zoom video call. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chaitanya Sama

Chaitanya Sama (from left) Melanie Westover, Alok Deshpande and Alicia Correa are shown in this recent handout photo taken during a Zoom video call. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chaitanya Sama

VIDEO: Seeking a friend for the pandemic, lonely souls find socially distanced connection

A third of Canadians, 10% increase, say they struggled with loneliness and social isolation in 2020

It’s always tough to find your crowd in a new city where you don’t know anyone. But moving to Toronto as lockdown set in last November left Chaitanya Sama feeling resigned that he’d have to spend the rest of the crisis in the sole company of his furniture.

The 30-year-old software developer figured he couldn’t be alone in feeling lonely. In January, Sama posted in a Facebook group inviting fellow friend-seekers to meet online on a weekly basis in hopes of forming a “Zoom family.”

It didn’t take long for bonds to blossom between the handful of “regulars” who sign on to the video-chat hangouts every Tuesday, and drop-ins are always welcome, he said. The eclectic guest list ensures there’s never a shortage of stuff to talk about, said Sama, and the group sometimes shakes things up with game nights and a virtual cocktail soiree.

When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Sama said he’s looking forward to finally meeting his friends face-to-face.

“Noticing the absence of something can make you realize how important it is,” he said. “Take away the social interactions, and suddenly, I’m feeling like, OK, that was a crucial thing and necessary thing in my life that I could not live without.”

Even before the pandemic sorted us into social bubbles, many Canadians struggled to maintain friendships as adults, say experts. Under lockdown, they say, that need for companionship has become more acute, allowing people to open up about loneliness and forge unexpected connections.

After her university social circle scattered post-graduation, Alicia Correa tried a variety of online tools to find new friends, but most of those encounters fizzled out.

Her isolation intensified when the 27-year-old moved back to Hamilton from Toronto to ride out the pandemic. But when she came across Sama’s Facebook post, Correa was excited to see so many commenters unselfconsciously seeking out an online community to help them cope with boredom and isolation.

In some ways, Correa believes this shared sense of solitude has brought her closer to her fellow members of the “Zoom family,” allowing the group to support each other in ways that could lay the foundation for lasting friendships.

“It’s so much easier to be vulnerable and talk about your experiences about COVID with a complete stranger than it is sometimes with family. And your friends generally get tired of hearing the same thing,” she said. “It feels nice knowing that other people are feeling the same way as you are feeling and can relate.”

In the past year, friend-finding platform Kinnd has built a Facebook group with roughly 8,500 members where people can share what they have to offer a would-be companion, and what they expect in return. The Toronto-based startup also offers paid mate-matching services through its website, and is planning to launch an app in coming months, said CEO Laura Whitney Sniderman.

Sniderman said she founded Kinnd with the goal of facilitating the kinds of meaningful connections that are often neglected in the bustle of modern life. But the seclusion of social distancing seems to have reminded people of the relationships they’re missing, spurring some to reconnect with old pals or search for new ones, she said.

“For the first time ever, the world is opening up and destigmatizing the conversation of loneliness and making it much more normalized to reach out and to recognize this deep-seated need for connection,” said Sniderman, who has a background in clinical psychology.

Close friendships seem to have suffered the greatest strain during the pandemic, with about a quarter of Canadians rating these familiar ties as “only fair” or worse, according to an online survey released by Angus Reid last fall.

Moreover, the non-profit found that a third of Canadians said they were struggling with both loneliness and social isolation in 2020, up by 10 per cent compared to 2019.

The COVID-19 crisis has not only taxed our closest connections, but severed many of the “weak ties” with people we don’t know that well, but who nonetheless play an important role in our sense of social cohesion, said Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor at University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“(These are) the people that we saw in our neighborhoods and in our daily lives that we wouldn’t necessarily think of as our closest friends, but they were part of our sense of belonging to the community,” said Mulligan, citing examples such as the ticket collector on your daily commute or a fixture at your favourite coffee shop.

There’s research to suggest that loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking, and has been linked to heightened risks of cardiovascular disease and even shorter lifespans, said Mulligan.

That’s why some health-care providers are taking a more holistic approach to treating their patients through “social prescribing,” which aims to reconnect people by referring them to community supports, she said.

“It’s not a failing of that individual person to feel lonely or to be excluded, and it’s something we can take on as a structural matter,” said Mulligan. “I find that empowering to know it’s not me, it’s something that I can change.”

Many communities have organized grassroots initiatives to help cultivate a sense of camaraderie in weathering the crisis.

Michelle Della Fortuna, a mother of two in Brantford, Ont., said she never sought to stray beyond her tight-knit circle of friends she’s had since college.

After the pandemic hit, Della Fortuna decided to join a “food fairies” Facebook group in an effort to teach her children about the importance of giving back. The exchange enlists anonymous “fairies” to drop off delicious goodies on each other’s doorsteps, while recipients try to catch them in the act.

Della Fortuna said she’s not only found new friends through the group, but feels closer to her neighbours than ever after seeing how the “fairies” have rallied to nurture each other through tough times.

“I get goosebumps just knowing that you brighten somebody’s day, or relieve pressure from a mom who’s just cooked out,” she said. “It just goes to show you how much people actually care.”

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Windsurfers enjoying a windstorm on Skaha Lake in Penticton on March 28, 2021. (Sandy Steck Photography)
Wind warning issued for Okanagan Valley

Boaters are being warned of gusts up to 70 km/h by late afternoon on Sunday

Vernon Vipers forward Ryan Shostak (centre) fends off a check from Salmon Arm defenceman to get a close-in scoring attempt on Silverbacks goalie Owen Say during Vernon’s 3-2 B.C. Hockey League pod play shootout victory Saturday, April 17, at Kal Tire Place. (Lisa Mazurek - Vernon Vipers photography)
Vernon Vipers use shootout to subdue Salmon Arm

Snakes score 3-2 B.C. Hockey League pod play win at Kal Tire Place

Coldstream Fire Department crews stationed at Kal Lake Provincial Park parking lot on Cosens Bay Road on Sunday, April 18, after a car went over a cliff in the area. (Roger Knox - Morning Star)
Driver escapes after car goes over cliff in Coldstream near Kal Lake Park

The driver has been transported to hospital with unspecified injuries

A GoFundMe page has been launched for a Vernon man whose BX orchard property home off Pleasant Valley Road near Stickle Road was totally destroyed in a fire Saturday, April 17. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
Fundraising campaign launched for Vernon man who lost home to fire

A GoFundMe page has been started by family; man taken to hospital with injuries from fire

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A Kelowna Pride Festival 2019 participant holds up a flag. (Kelowna Pride Society)
Kelowna Pride, RCMP continue to work on ‘Safe Place Program’

A new committee has been formed to refine the ‘Safe Place Program’ created by the Kelowna RCMP

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A strange odour at a West Kelowna apartment building prompted the evacuation of 150 residents on Sunday morning, April 18. (Aaron Hemens - Capital News)
Strange smell at West Kelowna apartment prompts evacuation of 150 residents, pets

150 residents ordered evacuated from a West Kelowna apartment building early Sunday morning

This is what’s left of a truck that caught fire at Pyramid Provincial Park off Highway 97 near Summerland Saturday night. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Photo Gallery: Truck gutted by fire at popular Okanagan park, trees saved

Just a metal shell of what once was a pick up truck is left at the scene

A syringe is loaded with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to open up COVID vaccine registration to all B.C. residents 18+ in April

Registration does not equate to being able to book an appointment

(Black Press file photo).
Multiple stabbings at Vancouver Island bush party

Three youths hospitalized after an assault in Comox

Most Read