Ring, ring: Canadians are calling each other a lot more during COVID-19 pandemic, telecoms say

By | April 26, 2020

Jordan Kondratiew has always been a social person, even growing up in a small farm town like Minnedosa, Man., where next-door neighbours are often much further than a lawn away.

“In my family and in my community, I’m the person that seems to know everybody and everybody knows me,” Kondratiew said, adding that she prefers to make phone calls, instead of texting, because “it’s nicer to actually have a conversation with someone.”

Lately, though, the number of calls she’s making has spiked, as public health orders force separation to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

She’s not the only one. According to numbers from the country’s major telecommunication companies, many other Canadians are choosing to phone people to stay connected as the world works to stay at least two metres apart.

The three major networks — Bell, Rogers and Telus — all say they’re seeing increases in call traffic nationwide, though none of those companies could provide data specific to province or territory.

Bell said voice calls on its network are up 200 per cent over usual, and it’s seen a 250 per cent jump in conference calls. The spikes started “around the second week of March,” a spokesperson said, but the company does not disclose the exact number of calls being made.

A screen promoting remote working using a laptop or a mobile phone is displayed on March 11 at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva. With more Canadians now working at home, telecom companies say they’re seeing an increase in voice calls. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

As of April 21, Rogers said it had seen 40 per cent more calls than usual from mobile devices across Canada over a 30-day span, and an average of more than 50 million mobile calls per day.

Meanwhile, Telus said the number of calls on its network has gone up by 45 per cent on average since March 16. Telus also does not publicly disclose the number of calls made on its network, a spokesperson said.

Those kind of statistics fit with Kondratiew’s experience. She works as a veterinarian technician — a job deemed essential by the Manitoba government — and says more business is being done over the phone at her workplace, to limit the amount of time people spend there.

Outside of work, she finds herself calling “at least three, four” people every day, including her father, grandmother and friends.

“My phone’s gotten a lot of minutes — my phone bill’s getting longer from all the people that I’m calling,” Kondratiew said with a chuckle.

It means a lot to me to be able to hear my friends’ voices — to be able to hear them and laugh, and be able to connect and share.– Anna Hawkins

“There has been so much uncertainty [due to COVID-19] and people often want to make sure that their loved ones are OK, or just to connect,” said Anabel Quan-Haase, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., who studies the effects of technology on society.

Her research has found people generally prefer to communicate via a medium that allows them to pick up on cues like the tone of a person’s voice or facial expressions, instead of what she calls “lean media,” such as text messaging — but that’s especially true now.

“Having that kind of more rich communication, I think, can help reduce uncertainty, in communicating affection, communicating social support — all those important things that kind of signal closeness.”

Anabel Quan-Haase is a professor at the University of Western Ontario, whose work focuses on the effects of technology on society. (Jonathas Mello/University of Western Ontario)

Another reason why more intimate forms of communication would be preferred during this pandemic is that many people are at home, Quan-Haase said.

Texting is valued as a way to co-ordinate things — communicating on respective schedules, for example — but many people aren’t following their normal schedule and have time to chat, she said.

Calls ‘maintain and nurture’ relationships

Anna Hawkins, a research assistant who recently graduated from Brandon University, is one of those people, and is calling friends and family on a daily basis.

“My relationships are really important to me, and that is the way to maintain and nurture those relationships in this challenging time right now,” she said.

“It means a lot to me to be able to hear my friends’ voices — to be able to hear them and laugh, and be able to connect and share, and to spend time together that way.”

Hawkins, originally from Poland, moved to Manitoba in 1990, when she was seven years old. Her mother — who still lives in Poland — is ill, so Hawkins has been reconnecting with relatives overseas, while also receiving updates on her mother’s health.

“Those circumstances aside, it has been really nice to be able to talk to them and catch up and see what’s going on in their lives.”

During calls, she and her friends discuss topics ranging from the latest on the pandemic to dishing about the daily happenings in their lives, she said.

She finds communication has become more intimate during the pandemic, with a voice in her ear during a phone call, or glimpses at a pet or home decor when video-chatting with a colleague.

“It’s just nice to be able to relate to other people and to know that we’re all in this together.”

A lasting change?

The post-pandemic world will bring a lot of changes, and one of those will likely be how people stay connected with others when unable to be together in-person, Quan-Haase says.

The surge in phone use happening now may not continue once people return to their regular schedules, she said, but there may be “some leftover effects that will be more prolonged.”

“I can kind of see how those new habits may carry forward because they’re really beneficial,” she said.

“In terms of checking with elderly parents, or kids checking in with their parents when they’re in university far away — I do think it provides a deeper, lasting kind of relationship formation.”

Quan-Haase gives an example from her own experience. She has developed a habit of checking in with her father — whom she sees a couple of times a year — around 8 every night.

“I can see this habit of calling him often continuing beyond the pandemic. I just want to check in on him,” Quan-Haase said.

Hawkins hopes to continue calls with her friends as well — but isn’t sure if a post-pandemic schedule will let her keep it up.

“I hope to, but in all reality I’m not sure if I’ll be able. I hope to be working more soon, which means I’ll have less leisure time,” she said.

“It has been really nice to connect with people I haven’t spoken to in a while, though, so I’d like to try to keep it up as much as I am able.”

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