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The coronavirus pandemic is an unusual period for all of us. We are facing fear and uncertainty about our and our close ones’ health, about the job and the future. Some of us are facing loss of our loved ones. We had to change our daily routines, reorganise our work, learning and looking after children.We do not know when everything comes back to normal or whether this ‘normal’ that we used to know will ever come back. We are not able to predict how the situation will develop.
In these difficult times, we have asked scientists from the University of Wrocław to share with us how they look at the situation from their scientific perspective. Below, we present a text by Dr Katarzyna Serafińska from the Institute of Psychology.

‘Community spirit’ is a term that seems to be obsolete today, although it is used quite often in psychology as a subject of study. We talk about community spirit when we want to collectively name the group of features connected with interpersonal sensitivity, care for relations, tendency to support and help others. Characteristics of the sense of community are, among others, protectiveness, helpfulness, kindness, goodwill, empathy, appreciation of others, consideration, or forgiveness. This spirit governs us when we are making new friends, deciding to strengthen relationships, or considering sacrificing something in favour of somebody else. It is community spirit that decides whether we like somebody, and people whom we consider as community-oriented are the ones whom we want to see around and in favour of whom we are prone to acting in our private as well as professional life. There is a bunch of questions that arise with regard to the sense of community – if it is such a fundamental dimension of our life and if it underpins our society, if it is a fuel for creating groups and acting together for a common cause, then why is it that we hear about it so little, why do we not learn about it in school, why do we not give grades and diplomas in connection with it, and, finally, why do we tolerate its secondariness? Answers to these questions are complex but it seems that we can find them in the glorification and cultivation of individualism, in domination of meritocratic and free market ideology, or in consumerism. Community spirit seems to be perfectly hidden in their shadow, being boiled down to just a soft skill that is theoretically useful but, in practice, unnecessary in dealing with hard market reality. The events from last weeks revealed how mistaken such way of thinking about the reality is, how high a social value community spirit has, how important a source it is to which we resort in the moments of crisis or difficulty.

The SARS-Cov-2 epidemic has an egalitarian character and it does not discriminate anyone. It means that it encompasses people regardless of their whereabouts, origins, skin colour, gender, economic condition, position or worldview. In a way, we are all equally submerged in a pandemic reality and equally exposed to its consequences. All this causes an unusual experience that triggers a specific state of consciousness here and now. Obviously, we are focusing on ourselves and our close ones, but we also begin to see people of other races or nationalities, and those coming from other social, occupational or age groups. In the face of the pandemic, we all form a community of potential victims. John Turner, a British late psychologist, described this phenomenon in 1987. He claimed that people’s thinking about themselves changes according to the conditions and that, as a result of certain circumstances, it causes so called identity shift. It appears that a pandemic might activate a different understanding of ‘I’ – we stop seeing ourselves as individuals or being submerged in  intergroup conflicts, and we become just humans that are connected through common experience and care for the future. A few years later, Sam McFarland, an American social psychologist, together with his associates came to a similar conclusion when publishing the ‘all humanity’ concept in 2012. He also suggested that self-identification may take different forms: local, community, national, or global. The last – rarest one, McFarland deemed a predictor of social responsibility, confidence in people, charity, and engagement for the benefit of the general public. Relating to the humanity as a whole is the dimension of our ‘I’ in which we are in a psychological closeness with other people and, in a way,  we can engage selflessly in the Biblical story about Love that is patient, kind and not proud. ‘All humanity’ researchers perceive such approach to social identity as useful and they connect it with lack of xenophobia and bias towards foreigners, with strengthening of empathy, kindness, care of community.  However, they emphasize that such people are rather an exception and it concerns those in which a feeling of belonging to the all-humanity category was activated through certain exceptional stimulus. Current observations indicate that it is happening in front of our eyes today, during the pandemic that makes us seeing others as our partners.

In Social Sciences, there are described several types of altruism, of which the most uncanny is reciprocal altruism. Some societies (e.g. army ants) or certain circumstances (e.g. natural disasters) have an ability to trigger such social engagement and integration in favour of a community and sacrificing one’s economic resources, time or even health for the common good. In the reciprocal altruism, the value that serves as a guideline for current actions and efforts is solidarity. During a pandemic, we can observe many cases of manifestation of that altruism. One of the more important, although not necessarily obvious ones, are dropping disputes, suspending conflicts, shifting focus from differences to similarities. In Poland, which has been strife-ridden in recent years and months, we can see a ceasefire in which we, as well as politicians of different political parties, empathise and engage in common help. On social networks, people create new groups offering their services and support, often anonymously. There appear offers to render free emotional, psychological or legal services. Scientists engage in denying false information about the virus and its cause, journalists seem to construct their news more diligently, top artists perform pro bono, and libraries make their resources available for free. At the same time, ordinary people spend their time on making protective masks hoping that they will prevent somebody from being infected. Others offer a helping hand in doing the shopping or walking the dog to those who, for some reason, cannot leave their house or those who  are under quarantine. The Internet is full of funny posts and photos that defuse negative emotions and cheer people up. One can name plenty of such examples that are an excellent emanation of solidarity in times of risk. Professions of public trust, such as kindergarten educators, teachers, nurses, pharmaceutists, doctors, firemen, police officers or soldiers, have become more visible. The public eye is today turned on people in these professions, who have the greatest attention and prove to be fundamental for surviving, and we suddenly start noticing their importance and indispensableness.

When looking at the community-oriented behaviour during the pandemic, there are many reflexions and questions that arise. Is there a chance that we learn something from this experience and become more society-oriented in the future? After the risk has ceased, will we be able to permanently add this lesson to our curriculum vitae? Will we be treating the above-mentioned professions more seriously? Will politicians finally take care of schools, higher education institutions or health care system, and not only of media and banks? Will stable and safe community become our future goal and not only a place for celebrating our own individuality? Will public become more valuable than private? In course of time, will we be able to see more similarities to one another rather than concentrate on differences? Only time will tell. It might sound paradox, but we can only carefully observe and experience this lesson of community spirit we are taking part in, and regret that we need a pandemic to understand it.

Dr Katarzyna Serafińska, Institute of Psychology

Published by: Dariusz Tomaszczyk

15 May 2020

last modification: 23 Jun 2020