Originally published in ABC Religion and Ethics by Victor Counted, Richard Cowden, and Wojciech Kaftanski
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on our world: millions have lost their lives to the virus, national economies have been shattered, and relationships fractured. We hear and read about these effects in popular media and specialised press. However, there are numerous other ways in which this public health crisis has disrupted human life, of which we rarely, if at all, hear or read about — one such example is the loss of the natural connection humans have with place.
In early 2020, widespread public health concerns about COVID-19 led countries around the world to implement stay-at-home orders and other public health measures to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Non-essential travel and in-person social interactions were restricted. Many educational institutions postponed in-person learning and places of worship were forced to substitute in-person services with online services. Employers had to adapt to the legislative changes prompted by the public health crisis, with many reducing operations and requiring employees to work from home. These kinds of public health measures forced people to change behaviour patterns and reconfigure lifestyles to meet public health and safety challenges. Such measures were considered a necessary part of the public health response. The consequences of these decisions essentially confined many people to their homes, while some were stranded overseas, or outside their states, unable to return home.
In Australia, for example, many states shut their borders, and the federal government limited international travel. During the climax of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, movements were restricted to a radius of five kilometres by the New South Wales government. The alienation from cities and familiar places that are valued by people has disrupted the enduring emotional responses that people have to place, including their connections to people, neighbourhoods, and local communities. In our recent book Place and Post-Pandemic Flourishing, we refer to this phenomenon as “place attachment disruption”. The term refers to a form of distress that accompanies the experience of being alienated from a place of significance by man-made or natural causes.
How we respond to loss
The distress caused by loss of connection to place can evoke reparative responses aimed at protecting the valued economic (such as, financial security), interpersonal (social support), or psychological (mental wellbeing) resources tethered to a place that may have been compromised. These responses include protest, despair, and detachment.
Protest is one of those human reactions to prolonged stressful situations that we have observed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, people in different parts of the world have flouted stay-at-home orders at one time or another. In one story, anti-lockdown protesters held “freedom” rallies across Australia to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s pandemic legislation. The Canadian phenomenon of the Freedom Convoy is an instance of a series of protests organised by truck companies and drivers whose initial opposition to vaccine mandates in Canada transformed into protests against national COVID-19 restrictions in general. These acts of protest are used to signal dissatisfaction with the disruption that lockdowns have had on people’s relationships with places that are important to them.
As a response to ruptured connections to valued places, the despair response reveals the agony and hopelessness that a person might experience over losing access to a cherished place, especially when their acts of protest are ignored or met with stricter public health measures. In attachment psychology, despair is a state in which a person loses hope of restoring the fractured connection they have. When people feel helpless and hopeless about returning to their cities, workplaces, or schools, this can worsen their mental health. Despair can manifest as an agitation over being restricted from accessing a place due to public health safety measures or as depressive mood swings due to the frustration of losing one’s bond with a place. Stringent lockdown laws in many countries have made people vulnerable to losing the bonds they share with places that are central to their wellbeing.
Although adaptation to the distress caused by loss of connection to the environment is critical to sustaining wellbeing, such loss can elicit negative reactions from people who rely on those places. We have seen many people publicly voice their anguish over how lockdown laws have upended their connections to the outside environment. Others have rebuked government authorities for enacting stay-at-home laws using their social media platforms to incite violence against the government or spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. These examples highlight some of the ways that despair responses are manifested when human connections to places are continuously under threat.
Detachment is the third phase in a response to a disrupted connection with a place of attachment. In this phase, people explore new relationships and experiences in the process of replacing the former experience and connection with a new one. The concept of detachment does not necessarily imply a negative behavioural pattern, but could mean exploring a relationship with the sacred, joining new online communities to help one thrive, trying new things or hobbies that bring joy and happiness. Detachment enables us to create new experiences with things and people that can be sources of meaning and security when the “outside” environment is no longer accessible or out of reach. In the context of COVID-19, detachment can be one of the positive adaptive strategies one could adopt to cultivate healthy behaviour that can stimulate new relationships among people and with local community spaces after the pandemic. Detachment allows us to turn away from things that no longer work in the new world order. This explains why many people may have found alternative connections online and with virtual communities while observing stay-at-home orders.
Strategies for flourishing
Our own experiences of the loss of place due to the COVID-19 pandemic have motivated us to understand how public health crises can affect people-place relationships, what our bonds with places might look like after a pandemic, and how connections between people and places can be restored and built after a pandemic. This realisation is important if we want to implement public health promotion strategies that aim at the ideals of a flourishing life. To achieve that, we need a flourishing framework that focuses on providing people with opportunities to rebuild and recover from the loss of relationships with places both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. This process could start with identifying community interventions that offer people opportunities to interact with the environment in new ways and foster new emerging relationships with places and people in those places. We recommend “detachment” as one of the adaptive strategies for reinventing our lost connections to place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which can involve learning to create new habits and exploring things that can facilitate flourishing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the role of “place” in many aspects of human life. It has provided us with an opportunity to more fully understand how the bonds that people share with places, as well as the resources tied to such places, support their wellbeing. If we can harness the lessons that this public health crisis has taught us about the implications of our ruptured connections with place, we may be better equipped to help people recover and even enhance their wellbeing when future public health disasters arise.
This article was originally published on the ABC Religion and Ethics platform.
Victor Counted is an interdisciplinary psychological scientist and incoming Associate Professor in the School of Psychology and Counselling at Regent University. He is also a faculty affiliate of the Human Flourishing Program, Harvard University.
Richard Cowden is a social-personality psychologist and the psychology research associate for the Human Flourishing Program, Harvard University.
Wojciech Kaftanski is a philosopher, postdoctoral fellow and communications associate at the Human Flourishing Program, Harvard University.