Circles designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging social distancing line San Francisco’s Dolores Park on May 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic introduced the idea of bubbles to our social lives. 

These strict directives to stick to our bubbles are essential to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. At the same time, this way of thinking disrupts our understanding of the kinds and quantities of social interactions needed to make healthy cities possible.

Health and social networks

In 2013-14, the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health Authorities asked 33,000 people living in the Lower Mainland of B.C. a series of big-picture questions about their health, at the individual and community level. One of these questions, a marker of physical and mental health, was:

“How many people do you have in your network that you could confide in, tell your problems to, or call when you really need help?”

Fewer than half (45 percent) of respondents in Metro Vancouver had four or more such people in their network. Yet survey results indicated clear links between social connectedness and health: individuals with four or more confidants had 1.5 times higher odds of reporting excellent or very good general health; and two times higher odds of reporting excellent or very good mental health.

People with four or more confidants were more likely to be female, to make more than $40,000 per year and were more likely to live with a transit stop less than five minutes away.

Coloured circles on pavement
Two girls play among coloured circles designed to help people maintain social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Nov. 2, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Our research team obtained similar results in a survey we ran in summer 2020 with residents at Brightside Community Housing and Catalyst Community Development Society in B.C. Among the 308 responses (29 percent response rate), only 41 percent reported having four or more close friends.

Individuals with four or more confidants had 1.5 times higher odds of reporting excellent or very good mental health; conversely, those with fewer than four confidants had 2.3 times higher odds of reporting just fair or poor mental health. In the same way, those with four or more friends were 3.6 times more likely to report that they were happy or very happy, compared to those with fewer friends.

Most people tend to underestimate the importance of their social connections to their health. Only one-quarter of Canadians surveyed by Statistics Canada in July 2020 reported a concern with maintaining social ties during the pandemic.

However, the proportion of Canadians reporting excellent or very good mental health is down 13 percentage points since before the pandemic: 55 per cent in July 2020 compared to 68 percent in 2019. The role of our social relationships is more important to our overall health than most of us acknowledge.

Social determinants of health

Our scientific understanding of the central importance of social well-being, connections, services and equity to our overall health has come a long way since the times when human health was simply considered to be the absence of disease.

From the World Health Organization and beyond, the social determinants of health are now an internationally accepted framework for valuing the full gamut of factors that contribute to making healthy individuals, healthy neighbourhoods, healthy cities and institutions, in a healthy natural and economic environment, that function together as a whole.

People are seen on St. Catherine Street in Montreal
Interactions in urban public space, where we witness others across social and political divides, are core to civility, civic participation and tolerance. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Many have recognized the way in which the pandemic affects people differently, depending on social, political, cultural, environmental and economic factors. Thinking about health systemically is complicated, but does a better job of explaining our overall health.

Bubble thinking, if normalized within our cities beyond the health emergency of the pandemic, threatens the wisdom in understanding our health as socially, politically, culturally, environmentally and economically determined.

Social connections

Socially, the advantages of city life are based upon premises that are antithetical to bubble thinking. Gathering together in concentrated groups can give people a sense of power, promise, inspiration and hope. Chance encounters with others in urban public space, where we witness others across social and political divides, are core to civility, civic participation and tolerance.

Prioritizing social connectedness was needed long before the pandemic, as we already faced a loneliness epidemic, but is ever more consequential now to combat the damage done by bubble thinking, and to move forward to rethink public health, post-pandemic. With a vaccinated future beginning now to take shape, let’s remember that bubble thinking prevents disease transmission during a pandemic; however it is not what makes us or our cities healthy.The Conversation

Meg Holden, Professor and Director, Urban Studies and Professor of Geography, Simon Fraser University; Atiya Mahmood, Associate professor, Gerontology Department, Simon Fraser University; Ghazaleh Akbarnejad, Research Assistant, Urban Studies, Simon Fraser University; Lainey Martin, Research assistant - Urban Studies Department, Simon Fraser University, and Meghan Winters, Associate Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.