Online Communities: COVID-19 lockdown is changing the way people seek human connection

The clock strikes 10 in the morning, and the admins and moderators of different groups on Facebook gear up for answering queries, handling misinformation and dealing with engagement which they weren’t expecting a few weeks back.

The beginning of the month of March spread confusion and chaos when the Sindh government in Pakistan announced closure of education institutions for two weeks in line with the detection of COVID-19. By March 11, the virus which has globally claimed lives of more than 72,000 and affected 1279722 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The pandemonium after the pandemic led the governments to request people to stay at homes and observe social distancing which meant that the significant way to have human interaction was through the internet.

Help is on its Way
Many Facebook groups have turned their focus to the pandemic, but new online groups have also emerged solely to address the medical queries of people. One such group, Corona Virus- Doctors Consultation & Health Tips, is a collaboration of two already existing online health platforms namely Oladoc and DoctHERS. The new Facebook group is serving as a way to build a community of people who are in need of medical advice of all sorts as the hospitals are shut across the country for non-emergency treatments.

Mehwish Rana, the Digital Marketing and Partnership Lead for OlaDoc and one of the admins of the group, said that the group was formed on March 19, and provides authentic information, news and medical queries by Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) certified doctors on coronavirus.

“We felt that with the lockdown, it would get difficult for people to reach clinics and hospitals, and owing to the paranoia in the air, it would provide them guidance from their homes. We also wanted to debunk many myths about the virus, and conduct live sessions with doctors with different specialisations to answer queries. Awareness is also crucial during this time and we aim to do that as much as possible,” Mehwish, who is based in Lahore, said.

Giving details about the group, Mehwish said that it has surpassed 50,000 members in just two weeks and saw a growth rate of 2500+ percent in the last week with the engagement of more than 2.5 million. The members comprise 52.3 percent women and 47.4 percent men with more engagement from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Awareness is also crucial during this time and we aim to do that as much as possible.

Mehwish Rana, Admin Corona Virus- Doctors Consultation & Health Tips

While Mehwish believes that technology was always essential, she trusts she cannot deny that the sudden reliance on it did take everyone by surprise.

“We have been using WhatsApp groups to communicate between the admins, moderators and the team of doctors, and have a Google sheet in place for the schedule of doctors. We make sure to moderate the shifts, and aim to address the query and close the thread as soon as it is sorted to avoid unnecessary comments. We conducted our live sessions on Zoom, but while the first one could directly appear on Facebook, we weren’t that lucky the second time so we synced it to YouTube and shared the YouTube link,” she said, explaining the usage of different applications as well as techniques to manage the community.

Mehwish believes that while the two online platforms will continue to provide online healthcare consultancy through their own websites, for OlaDoc and DoctHers, Facebook serves as a way to connect with the people in these trying times especially when there are many doctors swamped with their regular hospital shifts as well. In these instances, technology has emerged as a way to fight the pandemic.

Dealing with pandemic-induced stress through online communities
A popular women’s group on Facebook which aims to provide a safe space for all kinds of healthy interactions among members also tried to provide accurate information on not only the pandemic but also how to improve mental wellbeing during these unexpected times.

Sameera*, one of the admins of an all-women group on Facebook, said, “We are attempting to be a good referral system; the group also has many health providers, and other professionals that we are constantly trying to connect to women in need. We’ve assisted in fundraising in the past, and provide an open platform for that as well. We also organised live sessions with professionals, where they provided free-of-cost classes like yoga, skincare.” She adds, “We are trying to keep it light and positive, to have some semblance of normalcy. The yoga session really well, I feel and I think members are interested in these videos because it gives them a feeling of peace, and even may be a way they can be helped dealing with the grief,” she said.

Speaking about managing the group, Sameera* said that it is not always positive because the team works with limited rules. She said, “Members can post anything, anytime which can [create] issues as well.”

“However that said, technology is great in the way that it can virtually connect you to those that can help, without being [bound] by space. But there is also an issue with misinformation and controversial content, even borderline racist that allows [it] to be fueled due to technology. We have to be responsible when using it which becomes a bit of a hassle. We try to be as vigilant as possible with the content but also rely on our members to report inappropriate content to us, which they do very well. The community has ownership, which is what we want,” she explained.

We are trying to keep it light and positive, to have some semblance of normalcy.

Sameera, a Facebook group admin

Speaking about the engagement, Sameera* said that they had 7,486 posts with an 11 percent increase in engagement between March 14 and March 30; with almost 30,000 active members out of the total of 33,000. She shares that the group generally maintains a high engagement rate, so she didn’t notice a drastic change in trends.

Art as an Answer to Existential Crisis

While there has been a response by health practitioners, people who would often meet at dhabas to have political discussions or share art through poetry are also coming up with ways to extend their activities online.

We decided to shift the physical setting of our meet-ups to a virtual one. Unlike earlier, we don’t have restrictions of time and space.

Waqas Alam, student

Many people have turned to seek solace in art, be it music or literature or any other form. Waqas Alam, a student and a representative of Progressive Students Federation, said that he along with one of his friends came up with the idea of holding poetry baithaks over the internet.

Waqas says that as people have adopted social distancing, their routine events got cancelled, so they’ve now moved them online. He shares, “With many of us gone into self-isolation, people are glued to their laptops and mobile phones due to their work or to get updates. In this scenario, we decided to shift the physical setting of our meet-ups to a virtual one. Unlike earlier, we don’t have restrictions of time and space. We allocate an hour or two, and [my friend and I] use the Zoom application to have those discussions. This actually happened on Twitter which is another virtual space, and we made a WhatsApp group to coordinate. We send a Zoom link over the group and all those interested can join.” He adds, “We were able to gather around 14 to 15 people in the first one.”.

He further shared that in the session they read poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and there wasn’t any restriction to the poet rather they only asked the participants to explain what their association is with the poetry.

He also said that the same method was tried with a philosophical discussion led by one of the political workers. There were more than 20 participants from across the country and he has only met them online, he said.

Waqas felt that the sense of community was definitely there because people were participating. In order to address the looming existential crisis, he said, it is an attempt to make sure that their time becomes productive.

While the baithak became a novel approach, another Facebook group called Bookay which also leans towards art but has been around for more than six years, also witnessed increased engagement after the lockdown. The space was primarily set up for discussions on literature, books and sundry.

In a way the lockdown has allowed people to recharge their batteries and they are using the group to catch up on their reading list.

Hasan Saeed, Admin Bookay

Hasan Saeed, one of the admins of the group, said, “We are also working on a way to engage the members through a writing competition and other literary themed activities. We are exploring the possibility of engaging charities thus allowing members to donate [for relief funds offered to deserving communities].”

Hasan feels that technology has become crucial during the lockdown because it is the only thing that continues to connect people to the outside world as they lose touch with the physical world.

“Bookay was always an online forum before engaging physical meet-ups. In a way the lockdown has allowed people to recharge their batteries and they are using the group to catch up on their reading list. We used to have physical meet-ups on a monthly basis in various cities,” Hasan shares, adding, “Since the lockdown, the Karachi chapter held a meet-up through Skype.”

Hasan also pointed out that there was a significant increase in the number of posts, likes and comments. “The engagement rose by 30 percent in the last two weeks and we have seen an increase in the daily number of member requests as well,” he notes.

Some work and some play always goes a long way
Nudrat Kamal, an academician at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi, shared that the semester had just begun when the news about shutting down educational institutions came about. Given that both teachers and students are used to a traditional classroom setting, it was important for both groups to build a community to ensure learning with growth.

I also organised a Netflix Viewing Party with students twice, where we watched a movie together and then conducted a discussion about it on Zoom. It helps both the students and myself to have this human interaction and connection.

Nudrat Kamal, Academician, IBA

Nudrat, like many other teachers in the country, is using Zoom to conduct her classes.

“Even though online classes at the university had been suspended for two weeks, I wanted to still remain in contact with the students and maybe engage them in fun ways to learn. We made a Facebook group where we share interesting articles and stories and the members discuss them,” Nudrat shares. “I also organised a Netflix Viewing Party with students twice, where we watched a movie together and then conducted a discussion about it on Zoom. It helps both the students and myself to have this human interaction and connection,” she adds.

Similar to Nudrat’s approach, Shehroze Shaikh who is a counselor at a private school said that he and his team had to quickly adjust their work according to the online sphere. His job requires in-person interactions so it wasn’t easy to switch but they have managed to work it for themselves.

“We have been using Zoom not only for work related meetings with students, but also for casual fun activities. Our mental health counselors have been giving therapy sessions, yoga, and mindfulness exercises online too,” he said.

If anything, we have seen our students bring forth skills we didn’t know they had.

Shehroz Shaikh, student counselor

Shehroz added that it was interesting to see that once students got comfortable with the online space, they voluntarily came up with fun activities to keep themselves, their peers, and even staff members entertained and occupied.

“We are about to have a casual Ludo Star competition within the student body, while some students are engaged in various Instagram challenges. If anything, we have seen our students bring forth skills we didn’t know they had. Some are turning out to be artists, while others are engaging in woodwork,” Shehroz shared gladly.

He feels that with the uncertainty surrounding the lockdown, schools should make productive use of online spaces to keep their student bodies engaged and provide support to ensure their mental wellbeing, and that is what he is trying to achieve as well.

Access – a privilege
Nudrat realises the existence of digital divide and its effects on the sense of community that people need in the stressful times. She says, “I think technology is super important in these times, – it is the only way we can continue having human interaction with one another. I feel it is crucial to mental and emotional wellness in this difficult time. But this also makes me recognise that access to technology and the internet is not equal and there are many Pakistanis who are denied this access, so during this time for those people even human interaction becomes a privilege.”

Maryam Ahmad who is currently a student at a private university in Karachi said that human connections often require physicality, and while the shift to a virtual life wasn’t natural for her, it has helped her keep sane during these times.

This also makes me recognise that access to technology and the internet is not equal and there are many Pakistanis who are denied this access, so during this time for those people even human interaction becomes a privilege.

Nudrat Kamal, Academician, IBA

“[This is] the new social life, and applications like Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Netflix Watch Party are the new ways to hang out. Earlier the usage of my phone was restrictive because that’s how I kept it but right now, it is grounding me and giving me a sense of comfort that I am still connected to the people in my life,” she shared.

She added that the accessibility to these applications made her realise the immense privilege she has because there would be people self-isolating themselves and not being able to communicate with their peers.

Work from home is the new normal

Shahjahan Chaudhary, Project Director at the National Incubation Centre (NIC), Karachi said the discussion about the importance of digital transformation used to take place but this was the most sudden and drastic transformation that one could have expected, He says, “Suddenly, work from home is the new normal and everyone is adjusting to it. NIC itself is hosting live training sessions everyday from 11 am to 1 pm, and we have great participation from founders and the innovation community which can also be seen on our Facebook page,”

Earlier the usage of my phone was restrictive because that’s how I kept it but right now, it is grounding me and giving me a sense of comfort that I am still connected to the people in my life.

Maryam Ahmad, Student

Speaking about the reliance on digital platforms more than ever, Shahjahan said that NIC is playing an important role in this regard.

“All businesses are going through a challenging time – there is the issue of liquidity (payment delays, salary and rent commitments, etc) and of pipeline (new revenue, business development). Everything is practically halted with a shock so everyone is in survival mode and hoping that we recover from the Corona shock in the next 3 to 6 months,” he said.

Speaking about the usage of different tools, Shahjahan observed that video conferencing has taken off and social distancing has made video meetings a norm. “People are becoming increasingly comfortable [with video conferencing] and I think this trend will accelerate and will continue in the post-Corona world. People will avoid taking many unnecessary local and international trips,” he adds.

Suddenly, work from home is the new normal and everyone is adjusting to it.

Shahjahan Chaudhary, Project Director, NIC Karachi

However given that a larger part of population cannot access the technological tools effectively, he felt that the state needs to lower bandwidth cost and bring the basic cost of internet closer to zero, which would be essential for creating a learning society, a knowledge-based economy and a future that would be inclusive.

Access of Technology by the Marginalised

Transgender community activist Aradhiya Khan shared that while the members live together in different areas in the cities, they do not always have access to technology like TV or internet.

“Many of us have to struggle because of the lack of devices. I do not always have access to devices and many of our elders do not always have the right resources. I was considering Facebook Live and Instagram Live but those applications are hardly used by the members [of transgender community],” she shared.

Despite the challenges, Aradhiya does plan to help her community by recording a video to raise awareness about the pandemic, and feels glad that she has access to WhatsApp groups which are playing a role in raising funds to provide for families.

I was considering Facebook Live and Instagram Live but those applications are hardly used by the members [of transgender community].

Aradhiya Khan, Trans Rights Activist

“Based on the WhatsApp group, we are able to gather funds and go on ration funds. I shared the posts on Facebook to raise awareness so more people may help us. In case of an unforeseen event, we would coordinate with other activists who can provide legal and medical assistance. Instead of mobilising on ground, we would do it online if need be,” she said.


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