Resilience in a Pandemic of Isolation

April 24, 2020


Social distancing takes a toll on most of us. At its extreme it leads to people dying alone in intensive care units, with smartphones held by nurses and doctors relaying final words, glimpses, and moments with their loved ones. In less dramatic fashion, social distancing circumscribes our lives, pulling our personal boundaries tightly around us.

Our worlds have become vividly self-contained, lived mainly within the walls of our homes and the social sphere of immediate household members, if present. When we “Zoom” with one another and our students, it is as if we are speaking to one another from our cocoons. This is clearly a time that demands resilience.

Ann Masten, a developmental psychologist who has been among the most prolific scholars of resilience, has offered one of my favorite descriptions of this slippery term: “Resilience is the capacity of a system to adapt successfully to disturbances that threaten the viability, function, or development of the system.”

Of course, the system is scalable. We can be speaking of the ecosystem of an earthworm, or of the linked electrical grids of North America. Or we can be referring to humans who are experiencing a scary and stressful viral pandemic.

My research team at PiR2 – our disaster science center and lab focused on “Population Impact, Recovery, and Resilience” – has studied resilience in the context of a number of natural and technological hazards, including Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Joplin tornado, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, among others. We have theorized that resilience can be activated (that is, adaptation is more likely to occur) when individuals or communities have access to four specific “capitals”: social capital, economic capital, human capital, and political capital.

If they don’t have access to these capitals, they often rely upon the formal and informal institutions in their lives to provide a means of acquiring or exchanging the needed capital – this could be a social service or governmental agency, a faith-based organization, a workplace, or networks of friends and family.

We are testing this theory in real-time right now. Unlike in all the other hazards I have studied, though, we cannot physically gather together as teams to assemble the capitals we need. Instead, we operate alone, on virtual teams. The extent to which we can overcome the lonesomeness of this pandemic will be one of the measures of our success, and our resilience.



David Abramson

David Abramson, MPH, PhD
Clinical Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences