Covid-19 and the measures taken by governments around the world in order to control the pandemic have fundamentally changed the way we currently live our everyday lives and organise our relationships with others. Much of the popular media discussion has revolved around challenges faced by dual-earner families with young children and the possible consequences the closing down of day care centres and schools has for the gendered division of household work. Another big discussion has revolved around speculations on whether cohabiting couples spending more time together will lead to increasing birth or divorce rates.
Advices and instructions regarding how to cope with being together with others 24/7 circulate around popular media. However, the circumstances faced by people living alone have been scrutinised with less detail – even though in Finland, a country of approximately 5,5 million inhabitants, 1,2 million people live alone. People living alone face, in many ways, socially and economically precarious circumstances during the pandemia.
Already in life pre-covid-19, solo-dwellers faced an increasing risk of poverty when compared with other household types. In Finland, over one quarter of those living alone are living on low income, compared with around five percent of cohabiting childless couples. Sudden societal shocks, like the pandemia and following measures we are living through now, always hit those living alone the hardest. When the household depends on the income of one person, it is, not surprisingly, more vulnerable to changing circumstances than a household with two or more incomes.
Currently in Finland as well as elsewhere, people are instructed to avoid close contact with others. This has led many to weigh which of one’s social contacts taking place face-to-face are currently necessary and which are not. For those living under the same roof, being in contact with others is unavoidable, but for those living alone, the question seems trickier. Some solo-dwellers have opted for refraining from all physical social contacts, whereas others are weighing which social contacts are the ones I will continue to have face-to-face and who are the ones who form my “corona family” – if I get sick, who will look after me, do my groceries and keep me company?
Societal relationship hierarchies reveal themselves when we start to evaluate which relationships are ones in which we consider physical social contact as essential, and even as compulsory for our own as well as the relationship’s well-being. Probably quite many would see it acceptable if couples living apart together keep seeing each other, or that children in blended families can see their parents. But what about friends, relatives outside of the nuclear family or relationships that are more blurry and defy categorisations?
In terms of solo-living, it is also important to note that not everyone has a large pool of social contacts out of which to ‘pick’ those who are considered the most essential. Social scientists have pointed out that instead of ‘social distancing’, we should aim for social closeness via phone calls and social media whilst maintaining our physical distance. However, for many people, physical distancing is, in reality, the same as social distancing.
In Finland, the current state of emergency has meant the closing down of community centers and day activities offered to, for example, older people and people suffering from mental health disorders. For many, these centers and activities can be the main source of social contact with others. Taken into consideration the fact that people over the age of 70 have been instructed to avoid all physical social contact with others and that almost half of Finnish people aged 75 or more live alone, currently particular attention should be paid to the social and mental wellbeing of the +70 population living alone.
Dr Tiina Sihto is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre of Excellence in Research on Ageing and Care (CoE AgeCare, 2018–2025, Academy of Finland). You can find more info about her work here.