What do you do when you fall in love just before a global pandemic? That’s exactly what I asked myself two months ago when I met someone special.
The coronavirus pandemic has tested our healthcare system and led to an economic crash but it also had a significant impact on relationships as we each play a role in protecting our communities. However, physical distancing does not have to lead to social isolation.
More than half (54 per cent) reported feeling isolated in an online survey of 1,006 Canadians on the impact of physical distancing on their mental health. These feelings were highest amongst those aged 18-34. Loneliness had been identified as a global health issue prior to the emergence of this pandemic and has been linked with increased mortality and diminished quality of life. During this time, it’s important we simply redefine human connection, not lose it.
As a family doctor, I have had my own concerns during this time. How is virtualised care going to affect patient care? Is my father, who works in an emergency department, going to be safe? Is kissing boys still allowed?
I met a handsome, brown-eyed doctor shortly after I moved to Toronto. I hadn’t planned on meeting anyone yet I was taken aback by his unique ambition, humility and killer smile.
I began to understand how dating in residency worked. You need to be opportunistic when planning time together. Long and unpredictable hours are the norm. We turned yoga, grocery shopping, and laundry into date nights. Just as I thought I had it all figured out, enter the antagonist to my love story. A spherical, spike-ridden, crown-wearing monster. If you’ve seen what it looks like under a microscope, then you know I’m talking about COVID-19.
For some, this monster looms in the corridors of the intensive care unit (ICU), which means we cannot visit our loved ones. It has closed the doors to nursing homes, leaving the most vulnerable isolated. It renders some essential workers unable to see their families. To protect ourselves we must come home and perform a ritual of disrobing that is far from romantic. Remove your shirt from its collar, jump in the shower, and don’t touch your face – or mine!
As I pondered this new way of life, I wondered how those who are single were making out?
The 2016 Canadian Census showed one-person households have doubled over the past 35 years, accounting for 28.2 per cent of all households. The online dating scene has swiftly adapted to the pandemic. Tech companies have reported a rise in previously lesser-known apps such as Google Duo, which allows video chat; Next Door, which connects you to your neighbourhood; and Houseparty, which allows for group video chatting while playing games. The latter two have seen an increase in usage of more than 70%.
OK Cupid has updated its questionnaire to ask, “Does coronavirus affect your dating life?” Bumble Canada reported a 56-per-cent increase in video calls during the week of March 23 compared to the previous week. Tinder’s passport feature (previously a paid feature) has been made temporarily free. Hinge has introduced a “dating from home” option that allows you to video chat with your matches.
In the case of my handsome doctor, I wondered how to get to know the man of my dreams without seeing him. Could we still get to know each other in a meaningful way? Although we are both physicians, I work in the community and he works in the hospital. We hear information from the news, social media, and our colleagues. Our concerns, although similar, did not always align. We have had different and evolving perspectives about what feels safe during this time – and that’s OK. Decisions about quarantining in relationships (in the absence of symptoms) are personal. There are currently no evidence-based guidelines around this – trust me, I performed a thorough PubMed search. Circumstances at work and government advice will continue to evolve. In the meantime, we have given ourselves permission to not always know what’s “right” instantaneously. It was important for us to talk openly and non-judgementally. Assurance that we deeply care for the other helped adjust.
Human connection is essential to our wellbeing. Without touching or non-verbal cues, we are susceptible to feeling lonely or misunderstood. Loneliness is more prevalent in younger adults and the elderly. Socioeconomic factors such as, low income, low education, living alone and being single are risk factors. A smaller social network and lack of spousal support has been shown to increase susceptibility to loneliness. In 2017, a Swiss research study associated loneliness with increased risk of chronic disease, depression and doctor visits. Those who were lonely were more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, binge-drinking, poor dietary awareness, and decreased physical activity. As we gradually move into a post-COVID world, we must remain mindful of the impact social isolation has and will continue to have on our society.
With that said, we should not disregard a key relationship – the one we have with ourselves. I continue the rituals that keep me well, like exercise, reading, and baking (I still need to make sourdough starter before it ceases to be cool).
As for my story, it turns out love does conquer all. For now, some dates are on Facetime, we send voice notes, and mail each other hand-written letters that must be decontaminated prior to reading. Physical distance has not taken away our ability to share our hard days and be supportive. The distance has made us grow closer. For this I am grateful.
Similar to all things in life, this global pandemic too shall pass. I remain optimistic that soon I will be able to hug my parents, that my colleagues and I will eventually feel safer at work.
As for my handsome doctor, my health hero, I’m glad we didn’t let coronavirus kill a romance that is worth keeping alive.