It's always tough to find your crowd in a new city where you don't know anyone. But moving to Toronto as lockdown set in last November left Chaitanya Sama feeling resigned that he'd have to spend the rest of the crisis in the sole company of his furniture.
The 30-year-old software developer figured he couldn't be alone in feeling lonely. In January, Sama posted in a Facebook group inviting fellow friend-seekers to meet online on a weekly basis in hopes of forming a "Zoom family."
It didn't take long for bonds to blossom between the handful of "regulars" who sign on to the video-chat hangouts every Tuesday, and drop-ins are always welcome, he said. The eclectic guest list ensures there's never a shortage of stuff to talk about, said Sama, and the group sometimes shakes things up with game nights and a virtual cocktail soiree.
When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Sama said he's looking forward to finally meeting his friends face-to-face.
"Noticing the absence of something can make you realize how important it is," he said. "Take away the social interactions, and suddenly, I'm feeling like, OK, that was a crucial thing and necessary thing in my life that I could not live without."
Even before the pandemic sorted us into social bubbles, many Canadians struggled to maintain friendships as adults, say experts. Under lockdown, they say, that need for companionship has become more acute, allowing people to open up about loneliness and forge unexpected connections.
After her university social circle scattered post-graduation, Alicia Correa tried a variety of online tools to find new friends, but most of those encounters fizzled out.
Her isolation intensified when the 27-year-old moved back to Hamilton from Toronto to ride out the pandemic. But when she came across Sama's Facebook post, Correa was excited to see so many commenters unselfconsciously seeking out an online community to help them cope with boredom and isolation.
In some ways, Correa believes this shared sense of solitude has brought her closer to her fellow members of the "Zoom family," allowing the group to support each other in ways that could lay the foundation for lasting friendships.
"It's so much easier to be vulnerable and talk about your experiences about COVID with a complete stranger than it is sometimes with family. And your friends generally get tired of hearing the same thing," she said. "It feels nice knowing that other people are feeling the same way as you are feeling and can relate."
In the past year, friend-finding platform Kinnd has built a Facebook group with roughly 8,500 members where people can share what they have to offer a would-be companion, and what they expect in return. The Toronto-based startup also offers paid mate-matching services through its website, and is planning to launch an app in coming months, said CEO Laura Whitney Sniderman.
Sniderman said she founded Kinnd with the goal of facilitating the kinds of meaningful connections that are often neglected in the bustle of modern life. But the seclusion of social distancing seems to have reminded people of the relationships they're missing, spurring some to reconnect with old pals or search for new ones, she said.
"For the first time ever, the world is opening up and destigmatizing the conversation of loneliness and making it much more normalized to reach out and to recognize this deep-seated need for connection," said Sniderman, who has a background in clinical psychology.
Close friendships seem to have suffered the greatest strain during the pandemic, with about a quarter of Canadians rating these familiar ties as "only fair" or worse, according to an online survey released by Angus Reid last fall.
Moreover, the non-profit found that a third of Canadians said they were struggling with both loneliness and social isolation in 2020, up by 10 per cent compared to 2019.
The COVID-19 crisis has not only taxed our closest connections, but severed many of the "weak ties" with people we don't know that well, but who nonetheless play an important role in our sense of social cohesion, said Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor at University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
"(These are) the people that we saw in our neighborhoods and in our daily lives that we wouldn't necessarily think of as our closest friends, but they were part of our sense of belonging to the community," said Mulligan, citing examples such as the ticket collector on your daily commute or a fixture at your favourite coffee shop.
There's research to suggest that loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking, and has been linked to heightened risks of cardiovascular disease and even shorter lifespans, said Mulligan.
That's why some health-care providers are taking a more holistic approach to treating their patients through "social prescribing," which aims to reconnect people by referring them to community supports, she said.
"It's not a failing of that individual person to feel lonely or to be excluded, and it's something we can take on as a structural matter," said Mulligan. "I find that empowering to know it's not me, it's something that I can change."
Many communities have organized grassroots initiatives to help cultivate a sense of camaraderie in weathering the crisis.
Michelle Della Fortuna, a mother of two in Brantford, Ont., said she never sought to stray beyond her tight-knit circle of friends she's had since college.
After the pandemic hit, Della Fortuna decided to join a "food fairies" Facebook group in an effort to teach her children about the importance of giving back. The exchange enlists anonymous "fairies" to drop off delicious goodies on each other's doorsteps, while recipients try to catch them in the act.
Della Fortuna said she's not only found new friends through the group, but feels closer to her neighbours than ever after seeing how the "fairies" have rallied to nurture each other through tough times.
"I get goosebumps just knowing that you brighten somebody's day, or relieve pressure from a mom who's just cooked out," she said. "It just goes to show you how much people actually care."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2021.