Michigan Minds: COVID-19 and Social Infrastructure with Jessica Finlay

March 30, 2020

Along with residents of other states, Michiganders have been advised by state leadership to stay at home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. This means that people are not able to visit many of the places they typically frequent. Those social infrastructure sites where people gather, connect, and socialize are often called “third places”— locations outside the home and workplace that facilitate social interaction, community building, and social support.

In this episode of Michigan Minds, Jessica Finlay, postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Social Research, explains how third places provide a social glue to society, and shares her thoughts on how the pandemic is impacting them.

Some of these places are pivotal to peoples’ lives, Finlay says, and there are potential negative implications for emotional and physical wellbeing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In some ways, our society is a very social one,” Finlay says. “We’re used to engaging with each other. Whether it’s planned meetings with family and friends and colleagues, or just soaking up the ambient contact and having informal conversations. Not being able to have that really can put a strain on collective wellbeing, and increase the overall sense of anxiety and stress, which could have effects upon public health in the long term.”

She also discusses how local businesses might struggle to meet their rent or keep employees on the payroll, so there could be risks of closures of some third places. These closures could have effects on the wellbeing of those who frequent the businesses and the people who would experience a loss of wages.

Finlay says that some people have found creative ways to socially connect, using technology to overcome the physical distancing, and that has created an amplification of some online third places.

“I think we will still see a return to these places to physically gather and support one another,” Finlay says, “but I also imagine that this will demonstrate just how much social infrastructure could go online in the future as technologies continue to rapidly advance.”

She adds that physical distancing is necessary for public health measures, but it doesn’t mean that we should socially disconnect with each other.

“It’s a really important time to think about those around us and try to support each other.”

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