From Europe to Asia, a growing number of people turn to virtual socialising to feel less isolated during the COVID-19 outbreak
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By Sophie Davies, Beh Lih Yi and Umberto Bacchi
BARCELONA/KUALA LUMPUR/TBILISI, March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On the streets of Barcelona, a few lone shoppers and dog walkers, their faces obscured by masks, are the only signs of life in this once-vibrant city — but online it's a different story.
In Spain, as in the rest of the world, increasing numbers of people are going digital to keep community spirits up and avoid feelings of isolation during the coronavirus crisis, which has infected about 725,000 people and killed more than 34,000 worldwide.
Since Spain's population of 47 million went into lockdown on March 14, there has been a flourishing of virtual parties, online classes and remote cultural events as people rush to find new ways to stay connected during the pandemic.
On any given day, Barcelona residents can look at a list called #ElBarriDesdeTuCasa ("The Neighbourhood On Your Doorstep"), posted on the online community platform Nextdoor, and find five or six events in their neighbourhood alone.
These kinds of online activities are useful for "keeping people motivated and giving them a reason to get out of bed in the morning", Joana Caminal, head of community at Nextdoor Spain, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
They are a good way of "getting people to interact more – at such a complicated time," she stressed.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Spain has reached more than 80,000, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Since the start of March, 10 times more neighbourhood groups than usual have been created on Nextdoor Spain, with the site's number of global daily active users soaring by 80% in March from the previous month.
On Tuesday, California-based Nextdoor launched a "Solidarity Map", letting registered users worldwide ask their neighbours for help or offer to help someone local in need.
Online dating app Tinder is also finding new ways to bring people together at a time when everyone is keeping apart.
The company has announced it is making its "Passport" feature free until April 30, meaning non-premium users, who can usually only connect with people in their current location, can "transport themselves out of self-quarantine to anywhere in the world".
Health experts say that the internet could be a useful tool for staying positive during the pandemic.
"In this unprecedented time, we are all, in most cases, very, very isolated from the world ... never in our lifetime have we experienced isolation like this," said Nathan L. Vanderford, an assisant professor at Kentucky University's medical school.
"While the potential negative aspects of the internet still apply in our current situation, we can use these platforms to enhance our wellbeing," he added.
However many elderly people are not plugged into social media and online activity also means we are "bathed in communication" about the pandemic, which could enhance stress, noted Sara Thomee, an assistant professor of psychology at Sweden's University of Gothenburg.
Many people are also finding solace in virtual socialising, with colleagues and friends the world over raising a glass via video-conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
In Asia, these sessions have become so popular they have given rise to a Japanese phenomenon called "on-nomi", or online drinking.
With so many people working from home, virtual get-togethers are key to boosting team spirit, said Kate Walton, head of Steyer Content, a Seattle-based content agency.
"People crave connection. It's a fundamentally human instinct," she said, noting that since her 100-strong team began working remotely a month ago, it has bonded over drinks in several so-called "virtual happy hour" sessions.
Some online gatherings go beyond after-work drinks. In Malaysia, which imposed a partial lockdown on March 18, locals are organising online poetry readings, as well as a Stay at Home music festival to raise funds to buy food for medical workers.
Jabier Grey, a languages teacher in Madrid who participated in another online music festival, CoronavirusFest, in March, said the thriving digital scene is giving people the chance to experiment with different ways of coming together.
"It's a great opportunity for everybody ... I think some of the online (gatherings) are likely to remain online after (the crisis)," said Grey, who livestreamed a singing session from his flat via Instagram.
In Germany's capital Berlin, the city's famous nightlife has gone digital, with about 250 nightclubs joining forces on the website United We Stream to livestream DJ sets into people's homes every evening from 7pm until midnight.
In Italy, which has registered more coronavirus deaths than any other country, a group of artists and social media users have launched an Instagram account called My Sweet Quarantine to provide followers with a daily schedule of classes and performances.
While many people are going online to meet up without leaving their homes, others are using the web to learn something new.
In Wuhan, the epicentre of China's coronavirus outbreak, 24-year-old Zhao Xiaowei has discovered a new culinary passion after the country's lockdown prompted him to start watching cookery classes on livestreams and the popular video app Douyin.
"It's easier to pass time with technology during lockdown, or our day can be very dull," he said by phone.
Over in the United States, Valerie Canon, a 38-year-old ballet teacher from Kentucky, said she has been inundated with responses since starting a Facebook page called "My Friends Do Awesome Things. Let's Learn from Them".
The mother-of-three, who began by posting classes to keep her students fit during lockdown, said that within three days 1,500 people were using the page, giving her and others the chance to learn a host of "awesome and useful things."
"In the past few days, I have learned how to put victory rolls in my hair, make a Manhattan (and) how to make an at-home cleaner with citrus fruit and apple vinegar," she said.
Museums from Paris to Tbilisi have also moved online, providing virtual tours of their collections or letting artists film live performances in empty rooms.
"We wanted to show that even though we are physically closed, we remain open as an institution that produces culture, disseminating experiences and knowledge," said Stefano Boeri, president of the Triennale Milano art and design museum in Milan.
Malaysian yoga instructor Susan Tam, who has moved her classes online, said staying digitally active is important for bridging the gap between people caused by self-isolation and social distancing.
"We are used to having these social connections," she said.
"Doing live online classes means we can still have the community connection without the risk - it's good for our health."
(Reporting by Sophie Davies in Barcelona, Beh Lih Yi in Kuala Lumpur, Umberto Bacchi in Tbilisi, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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