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

Jessica McCallum-Miller announced on her Facebook page that she is the recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Inclusion, Democracy and Reconciliation on April 17, 2021. (Jessica McCallum-Miller/Facebook)
Jessica McCallum-Miller to receive Lieutenant Governor’s Medal

Former Terrace councillor, Coast Mountain College student ‘honoured’

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

Skeena Valley Farmers Market is expected to kick off its 2021 season from May 1, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place ( Skeena Valley Farmers Market/Facebook)
Skeena Valley Farmers Market on track to reopen next month

The first market day of the season will be held on May 1, at George Little Park

Coast Mountains School District 82 announced a shuffle of leadership positions in Terrace and the Hazeltons for the upcoming 2021/22 school year. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Coast Mountains School District 82 announces leadership shuffle

Several principal, vice-principal positions in Terrace affected

The Spencer family was overwhelmed by the support they received from the community after a fire forced them to move out from their home on Tuck Avenue. (Photo courtesy, Sabrina Spencer)
‘When the province and my own band failed us, Terrace community stepped up’

Sabrina Spencer was overwhelmed by the community’s support after their home burned down last month

A lone traveler enters the Calgary Airport in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
VIDEO: Trudeau defends Canada’s travel restrictions as effective but open to doing more

Trudeau said quarantine hotels for international air travellers will continue until at least May 21

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

Former University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Rowing Canada sanctions former head coach of B.C. varsity women’s team

Suspension of Barney Williams would be reversed if he complies with certain terms

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a CEFA (Core Education and Fine Arts) Early Learning daycare franchise, in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. budget to expand $10-a-day child care, but misses the mark on ‘truly universal’ system

$111 million will be used to fund 3,750 new $10-a-day spaces though 75 additional ChildCareBC universal prototype sites over the next three years.

Mak Parhar speaks at an anti-mask rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Parhar was arrested on Nov. 2 and charged with allegedly violating the Quarantine Act after returning from a Flat Earth conference held in Geenville, South Carolina on Oct. 24. (Flat Earth Focker/YouTube.com screenshot)
Judge tosses lawsuit of B.C. COVID-denier who broke quarantine after Flat Earth conference

Mak Parhar accused gov, police of trespass, malfeasance, extortion, terrorism, kidnapping and fraud

Ambulance paramedic in full protective gear works outside Lion’s Gate Hospital, March 23, 2020. Hospitals are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients more than a year into the pandemic. (The Canadian Press)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate declines, 849 cases Tuesday

Up to 456 people now in hospital, 148 in intensive care

Most Read