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How We Can Rebuild Communities After the Pandemic

The importance of life together for health and well-being.

Key points

  • Community life and social connectedness is central to our health and wellbeing.
  • We need efforts to build and rebuild community life post-pandemic.
  • A sensible community promotion approach could encourage religious community participation for those who self-identify with a religious tradition
  • ...and encourage other forms of community life for those who do not

The year ahead, we hope, will be one of rebuilding. As this year draws to a close, it has sadly become clear that the pandemic is not yet over. The holiday season has come but in many places travel remains difficult, precarious, and restricted. Many look forward to time together with loved ones… but others are mourning losses of people, of places, of plans, and of hopes.

PCH Vector/Shutterstock
Source: PCH Vector/Shutterstock

While many have found ways to connect during the pandemic, and in some cases, relationships may have even deepened, the threat to community life has been very real. The sudden and often extended closure of schools, churches, public accommodations, and workplaces has weakened or even paralyzed many communities. Some of them have struggled through, managing and navigating the restrictions and conditions, while others wait hopefully for a better time. Many, however, have simply ceased to exist: the collateral damage of our fight against COVID. As we look towards the year ahead and hope for better circumstances, it is important to consider how we will rebuild—how we will recreate—community.

Communities and Wellbeing

Empirical research has, for some time, indicated the powerful effects that relationships, social support, and community participation have on health and wellbeing. As Aristotle observed, we are “political animals,” able to fully flourish only in community. When we are deeply embedded in relationships, we tend to thrive; when we are isolated, the cost to our wellbeing is considerable.

For some time now at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, we have studied various aspects of communities, communal wellbeing, social participation, and their role in flourishing. We have published on the role of social support in healthy aging, on the role of social cohesion in wellbeing, on the effects of loneliness on depression, and on the role of volunteering communities in promoting health. It is clear in this research that communities make critical contributions to the wellbeing of our country and of our world. We have also been examining what it means for a community itself to function well and we have developed assessments of communal wellbeing which we have been employed in cities, schools, long-term care facilities, and elsewhere to try to understand in what ways different communities are and are not flourishing. We hope in this work to facilitate and promote flourishing at both individual and community levels.

Religious Communities

Much of our research has also highlighted the important role that religious communities play in human flourishing, including preventing depression and suicide, extending longevity, improving marital outcomes, facilitating happiness, meaning, forgiveness, and hope. The size of the effects of religious community participation tend to exceed those of other forms of social participation. With regard to effects on mortality, suicide, and cardiovascular disease, the effects of religious service participation are larger than for any other social participation indicator examined, including marriage, time spent with friends or family, hours spent in other community groups, or even their composite.

While the empirical research itself has become increasingly clear, the implications of this research requires more nuance. In particular, it does not necessarily mean that everyone should immediately join a religious community. Religious commitments and beliefs are shaped most fundamentally by values, relationships, truth claims, evidence, systems of meaning, and experiences. Very few become religious for the sake of physical health. However, as we have recently argued in a commentary in the American Journal of Epidemiology, while the implications of the research need to be approached carefully, there are indeed important implications for public health.

We argue that while the research in no way suggests a universal “prescription” for religious service attendance, it does perhaps constitute an invitation back into communal religious life for those who might already positively self-identify with a religious tradition. We discuss how religious service attendance could be promoted for those who positively self-identify with a religious tradition, and other forms of community life could be promoted for those who do not, and we discuss how this might be done in thoughtful, sensitive, and ethically reasonable manner both within clinical and public health settings. Religious communities—like all institutions—have their own struggles and problems, e.g., regarding sexual abuse, or in responding appropriately to the pandemic. But there have also been important efforts to address these issues which have, in many cases, been successful, dramatically lowering the incidence of abuse and working with public health efforts to mitigate the spread of infection while preserving the important ends of religious communities themselves. There’s no contradiction between recognizing the tremendous good offered by these and other communities and vigorously seeking to reform them; indeed, the former arguably entails the latter.

Social Connectedness and Belonging

Because of the importance of social relationships and community, we have recently established a new project on social connectedness and belonging. Over the course of this coming year we will be preparing for a small international research workshop in early 2023 and for a larger open conference later that year bringing together scholars, practitioners, politicians, and community leaders to reflect upon how we can create connectedness, foster belonging, address loneliness, and rebuild communities. We hope that this new initiative will strengthen our work on this important topic further, and offer some small contribution towards enhancing and encouraging community life.

Re-Establishing and Strengthening Communities

Of course, some of the hard work of rebuilding will require courageous leaders and community members to devote their time and resources to sustaining or re-establishing community life or preserving what exists until a fuller re-opening is possible. But the rebuilding of community will also require decisions from countless individuals to re-engage once again, to reinvest in what have perhaps become more distant or estranged relationships, or to go through the hard work of establishing new ones. Rebuilding community is ultimately the work of everyone.

Is this realistic? The law of entropy applies to societies as much as physical systems: it is always easier to destroy a community than to build or rebuild one. Already before the pandemic, community participation had been in decline, as documented in the United States for example in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Peering forward towards the year ahead, with COVID infection rates on the rise yet again in many places, can be daunting. But whether it is now, or in six months, or sometime later, there is rebuilding to do.

Efforts to participate in, establish, build, and rebuild community can be effective. In just a few days’ time, many people from all over the world will celebrate Christmas. An event - the birth of a child – has, over the past two millennia, formed a community of over two billion people, drawn from every region of the globe. The growth of this community did not take place overnight, but was forged bit by bit through the sacrifice, the love, the common values, and the shared vision for a transcendent end of its members. At its best, community brings people together, offers a sense of belonging, and points us towards what is most important. We are social creatures. We need community. Let us work together in the year, and years, ahead to help re-establish what was lost, to rebuild community, and to strengthen it yet further.


VanderWeele, T.J. (2019). Measures of community well-being: a template. International Journal of Community Well-Being, 2:253-275.

VanderWeele, T. J., Balboni, T. A., & Koh, H. K. (2021). Religious service attendance and implications for clinical care, community participation and public health. American Journal of Epidemiology,

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