Understand how these have affected us as a nation during COVID-19

Understand how these have affected us as a nation during COVID-19

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Relationships and loneliness in the time of COVID-19

In June 2020, we published our Cigna 360 Well-being Survey as the first in a new series of studies from Cigna to better understand the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people's health and well-being. Conducted between January and April 2020, the study engaged over 10,000 people across Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Within Singapore itself, our results have helped to paint a clearer picture of how the pandemic and the subsequent circuit breaker have impacted our relationships with the people in our lives. People in Singapore have had opportunities to spend more quality time with loved ones, which translated to better connections and relationships, as well as a decrease in feelings of isolation. However, there were some mixed results in terms of the quality of our relationships. These are likely to have been brought about by the inevitable digital divide, along with conflicts arising from prolonged periods of confinement. Read on to better understand how these benefits and drawbacks have affected us as a nation.

Benefits of having greater opportunities to strengthen relationships

As we ease into phase 2 of the circuit breaker, we have undoubtedly spent the past few months together with our loved ones at home. Being confined together allows couples and families to listen, work things out and support each other more easily as they have the necessary time to do so. Because of this, people in Singapore have generally been able to spend more quality time with their families and have grown closer to them as a result. Our 360 Well-Being survey results highlight this, with 45% of our survey participants having seen an increase in time spent with their family, up from 33% in January. Similarly, the percentage of participants who stated that the quality in time spent with family has increased to 38%, up from 31% in January.

The increased time spent together presents our participants in Singapore with the opportunity to re-evaluate and strengthen the existing relationships with their family and themselves1. In general, this has also led to positive outcomes, such as strengthened relationships between family and friends, with people caring more about their loved ones and their feelings, as well as an increased focus on mental health. Our survey results support this as well, with 47% of participants in Singapore stating that they were better able to take care of their partner’s well-being, which is a significant increase from 31% in January. 37% of our participants in Singapore also felt that they had a close-knit family to provide emotional support, again up from 31% in January, which shows that more families have emerged out of this crisis with stronger bonds.

Benefits of experiencing a greater sense of community

Moving beyond our families and into the larger community, even with the introduction of the circuit breaker, loneliness in our Singapore participants is on the decline, thanks to the use of technology. During the circuit breaker period, communication technology such as Skype, Zoom and video calls played a key role in helping us communicate with our loved ones outside our immediate family, allowing us to stay connected.

Furthermore, the pandemic has also somewhat changed the face of social media. Its content is now more personal and intimate, being more family-focused, emotional and reflective, rather than the usual superficial posts about holidays, scenery and food2. Perhaps then, a positive impact of this pandemic is a shift in our viewpoint, that technological devices are not simply a great chasm of lost time, but instead, mediums for greater connectivity.

Beyond keeping us connected with our loved ones, technology has also helped contribute to a greater sense of community within our society. Because of the circuit breaker shutting down all social activities and isolating us in our homes, online interest groups and communities have begun popping up as an alternative. Some examples include online gym and yoga sessions or church cell groups. In fact, these online communities have become increasingly popular as they allow us to participate in our regular hobbies and activities without leaving home. They have helped immensely in keeping our Singapore participants less isolated through fostering a greater sense of community with like-minded people.

Technology isn’t the only contributor to this sense of community either. The pandemic itself has also fostered a greater sense of community and solidarity, creating a communal sense of rallying and giving back that is almost unprecedented3. Activists, volunteers and businesses have been stepping up to do their part to support the more vulnerable segments of society, as well as our brave healthcare workers. For example, restaurants in Marina Bay Sands have donated 15 tonnes of food to a food charity, who then redistributed it to those in need4. Other efforts include food, mask and sanitiser drives which distribute these items to charities around Singapore, which are then handed out to the needy. Even financial aid is on the rise. Monetary donations have also increased by 67% between January and February to $2.2 million5. Finally, the total number of volunteer sign ups have also increased by 40% to 1080 in the same period6.

These efforts by various individuals and organisations in Singapore have displayed the community spirit that Singapore has. All in all, our community efforts supporting each other through the pandemic have helped strengthen families and communities and brought us closer together, allowing us to feel less isolated. This is shown in our survey results, with 43% of participants in Singapore reporting that they felt isolated, down from 57% in January. Similarly, 51% of our Singapore participants said that they felt left out, again down from 57% in January.

Drawbacks of an extended reliance on technology

It is not uncommon for us to turn to our friends and families in periods of stress and conflict. With the social distancing measures in place, we may find ourselves isolated from our usual support systems and cut off from these regular coping mechanisms. We have had to turn even more to digital means to connect with people, like video calls, texts and social media. An increased reliance on online interactions, however, is not without its drawbacks. Technology remains as a skillset that not everyone is equally knowledgeable or well-versed in. When a digital divide such as this exists, it can result in inconsistencies in the nature and quality of our relationships. For communities that do not have the same access to technology, such as the elderly, this experience can leave them less connected to the people in their lives.

For people who do have greater access to online technologies, an overreliance on it to connect with others is not necessarily a good thing either. Virtual friendships and interactions may be a good way to make up for the lack of physical time together, but the issue lies with the meaningfulness of these forms of connection. It can be tough to truly engage in quality time together with the absence of physical, emotional cues, and research has correspondingly shown that increased social media use can leave us feeling more lonely and isolated7. Our own 360 Well-being survey results back this up. Of the people in Singapore, 61% stated that they had someone to talk to, down from 67% in January. More concerning is perhaps the observation that only 54% reported that they had someone that really understood them, which is again a decrease from the reported 61% at the start of the year.

Drawbacks of prolonged confinement

Similar to how an extended reliance on technology can have its drawbacks, the circuit breaker and the prolonged confinement that comes with it has had a number of negative impacts on relationships as well. In these cases, it tends to be the high-pressure environment of confinement, coupled with financial stress brought about by a COVID-19 burdened economy, and constant worries about health and safety that has led to a rise in conflicts within households.

In less extreme cases, many families and couples have found themselves navigating new problems and unresolved issues that arise from being isolated together. The enforced isolation has complicated simple matters to the point where they could potentially trigger arguments and disagreements. Such mundane matters could include, among many others, untidiness, living arrangements and whether to buy food or to get it delivered. These newly formed issues could also add on to existing tensions that have been directly brought on by the circuit breaker, such as an increased burden of care on some family members, as well as constantly having to worry about the health of the young and elderly members of the family.

Worryingly, more extreme cases have also been brought about by the prolonged period of confinement. With all the worries and stresses with regards to children, working from home, household decisions and even financial trouble, it has caused some to lash out at their families. In fact, the Singapore Police Force has reported a 22% increase in domestic abuse cases during the circuit breaker period8. Spousal relationships have also been affected due to the circuit breaker, with local lawyers seeing a 20% increase in divorce enquiries9.

On a more encouraging note, it seems to be the case that while the circuit breaker has strained some relationships, it has had more of a positive impact overall. It is inevitable that conflicts will arise between parties who are isolated together for an extended period of time. However, this extra time together also affords us more time to work on and resolve any conflicts and differences we might have. This does seem to be mostly the case, resulting in less stress than would otherwise be associated with these scenarios. Our survey results do show that this is the more prevalent scenario, with our participants in Singapore reporting that family-related stress decreased from 13% in January to just 8% in April. In fact, even relationships with others outside of the family have benefited, with the survey results indicating that only 6% of Singapore participants face stress from relationships outside the family, down from 8% in January.

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A unique situation like the COVID-19 pandemic affects all of us differently. It has undeniably changed the way that we interact and connect with the people around us, but it is not necessarily for the worse. In Singapore, we have risen to the challenge and managed to draw some positivity from these otherwise adverse circumstances. More importantly, this collective experience has served as a poignant reminder for us to reaffirm our priorities and re-evaluate our relationships from time to time, allowing us to better recognise and appreciate the ties we have with those that are most important to us. As we continue to move forward, the question is perhaps not so much about when we can go back to our old ways of living, but rather how we can make use of the lessons learnt to better shape our well-being for the future.

1. Global-is-Asian. (2020). COVID-19: Too close for comfort - Will the pandemic make or break the family?. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
2. Tan, A. (2020). We cannot allow COVID-19 to disrupt our relationships too. CNA.
3. Liu, Y. (2020). Is COVID-19 changing our relationships?. BBC.
4. Channel NewsAsia (2020). Marina Bay Sands Donates 15,000kg of food to charity.
5. City of Good. (2020). Amid COVID-19, Singaporeans rally to donate over $2.2 million in February.
6. City of Good. (2020). Amid COVID-19, Singaporeans rally to donate over $2.2 million in February.
7. Hobson, K. (2017). Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time On Social Media May Be Why. NPR.
8. Ang, B. (2020). Circuit breaker love and heartbreak: Divorces, fights, heightened tensions. The Straits Times.
9. Ang, B. (2020). Circuit breaker love and heartbreak: Divorces, fights, heightened tensions. The Straits Times.

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