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Voices from the Movement: The Global Need for Social Connectedness

January 25, 2022

Welcome to the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness’s newsletter, “Voices from the Movement!” In this ongoing digital publication, SCSC will strive to highlight writers who are researching and advocating across the social connectedness movement. In our inaugural post, Rebecca MacLeod, sustainability activist and founder of the organization New Grocery Movement, curates a deep dive into the most critical events of 2021, with a look at how such events relate to the social connectedness movement. The full newsletter can be found here, on our Substack.

At SCSC, we are well-versed in the knowledge that everything is connected, and if we apply this lens to 2021’s disparate global events, it reveals deeper connections among some of the greatest challenges and triumphs we’ve seen this year. 

In only the first week of 2021, the world watched in shock as the United States Capitol was stormed by hundreds of pro-Trump insurrectionists aiming to disrupt the electoral confirmation of incoming President Joe Biden. The aftermath of that day plunged an already divided country into further chasm, as waves of support for the rioters melded with fury upon learning of Trump’s eviction from the top social media platforms – his life line of communication to his followers and a global audience. The Capital riot and its backlash stood in contrast to Biden’s inauguration on January 20th. Undeterred by Biden’s calls for unity, the division between Trump supporters and American progressives has remained entrenched until today, with people across the country continuing to feel disenfranchised, unrepresented, and isolated. Despite the passage of time since Trump’s presidency, seemingly little progress has been made in bridging the gap between these groups to promote understanding, find common ground, and foster connection across party lines. If anything, the divisiveness and politicised nature of many aspects of the global pandemic has only deepened this divide across the United States. 

While the global health crisis remained in the spotlight throughout 2021, conflicts across the world exacerbated the situations of already vulnerable populations. In East Africa, the civil war between Ethiopian forces and the Tigray region raged on, with warning signs of genocide taking form. Since its official declaration in November of last year, violence in the region has only increased, catalyzing a humanitarian crisis now in 2022 that teeters on the edge of famine. In the summer of 2021, the Middle East experienced further upheaval following the removal of US armed forces in Afghanistan, which prompted an immediate and aggressive reaction from the Taliban. The loss of Afghanistan’s progressive accomplishments, such as in female education, compounds with the emotional toll of those now forced to flee or face violence under Taliban control. Even a surface-level view of these conflicts – of which only a few in 2021 are named – bears witness to the isolation of certain populations, and ways in which isolation can lead to the cultivation of radicalization and violence. Although the opposing groups may share regional boundaries, they suffer a disconnect regarding their common humanity. A stark lack of belonging emerges; and while some may find belonging in their respective group, without connection and understanding between the groups – between those deemed as other – isolation, radicalization, and increasingly violent conflicts are ripe to continue.

At times throughout 2021, human triumphs managed to dominate the headlines as much as the struggle for human rights. The 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics were held in Tokyo, gifting the world a much-anticipated international sporting event one year later than planned, after it was deferred due to COVID. The Games stood out as a refreshing example of connection during a pandemic that continued to keep people apart. However, not all were in favor of this grand display. Olympic opponents pointed to the incredible amount of resources used to ensure the games went forward, which could have been redirected to regions that were still dealing with high levels of COVID cases. To further that point, critics also underscored their frustration at an unnecessary event getting the green light, when it not only put the local population at a higher health risk, but the rest of the international community too. The sporting event gave people something to cheer about again, together. But the physical connection we’ve been so careful to evade also caused further turmoil. 

Another controversial 2021 landmark was the billionaire space race. Jeff Bezos, through his company Blue Origin, successfully launched a fully-automated space flight for civilians, not long after Richard Branson, fellow billionaire and Virgin owner, beat him to it. Elon Musk also has his eyes on civilian space tourism via his company, SpaceX. It is undoubtedly a feat to achieve the first commercial flight in space. However, dispute arose over the extravagance of the hoarded wealth of billionaires being concentrated on a sector that will remain isolated from many for decades to come. With so many people still in poverty and unable to gain equal access to transportation and basic necessities on the ground, the ethics of space tourism come into question. Critics argue that these resources should instead be redistributed to those in need on Earth, rather than widening the gap – literally. 

Nearing the end of the year, the world’s attention turned to 2021’s most anticipated global summit – the COP26 climate change convention. Coming on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest and most damning report, COP26 was tagged as the last chance for world leaders to commit to collaborative climate change mitigation action. Attendance was also fueled by record-breaking weather events, evidence of the severity of climate change’s current and coming impacts. For many countries, the summer of 2021 was the hottest on record. Historic heatwaves rocked the globe, from the west coast of North America to Greece and Turkey, accompanied by raging wildfires. Heavy precipitation and flooding also destroyed communities, such as in Germany in July, and in some cases even in the same location, such as in Canada’s province of British Columbia in November, which faced both disastrous heat waves followed by later catastrophic flooding. COP26 represented an opportunity for true human connection – across all social, political, and geographic lines – a strong foundation for global change needed in this crisis. Important decisions were celebrated, such as agreements to phase down coal, methane emissions, and deforestation. However, critics argue these measures do not go far enough to protect those most vulnerable and to prevent tipping the warming threshold. In order for meaningful change to be enacted, leaders must bridge the divide between their political agendas and the needs of their citizens, especially those most impacted. As Greta Thunberg so powerfully said, “The people in power can continue to live in their bubble filled with their fantasies, like eternal growth on a finite planet and technological solutions that will suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere and will erase all of these crises just like that. […] All this while the world is literally burning, on fire, and while the people living on the front lines are still bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

Throughout 2021, the cloud of COVID-19 hung heavy across the globe. Third and fourth waves plunged countries back into total lockdowns, physically isolating millions from their communities, yet again. We entered the year just under the 2 million mark for COVID deaths. But with the introduction of the Delta variant, that number escalated steadily throughout 2021, a number that has now risen to 5.6 million deaths with Omicron. And it isn’t likely to slow down, at least not yet. Unequal global vaccine distribution contributed to the identification of a new strain in late November, indicating that the end of COVID will not occur in our near future. It’s an exhausting prospect, underscoring how the isolation of some – countries without equal vaccine access – can have connected impacts on the rest – highly vaccinated countries facing new waves from new variants. 

Mental health remains a central concern even as restrictions ease. For instance, this year in the United States, there has been a “51% increase in ER visits for suicide attempts by adolescent girls […] as compared to the same period in 2019.” This one example highlights the imperative that as a collective, our priorities going into 2022 must be to nurture our connections, take responsibility for the well-being of our community members, and place belonging at the forefront of everything we do. With greater importance on social connectedness, it is possible to come out of the pandemic in a better place than when we entered it. If there is one thing we’ve learned in 2021, it is that connection is essential, even more so in times of forced isolation.