Millions of people in the US are acknowledging social isolation due to the COVID-19 outbreak, noted Adam Gabbatt of British newspaper The Guardian. In the long run, social isolation can increase our risk of premature death. Nowadays, it is called “social recession” to match the economic downfall of businesses caused by the pandemic. “Social recession” can also have profound effects on our physical and mental health.
Alarmingly, older adults and people with disabilities or preexisting health conditions are the most vulnerable to “social recession,” cautioned Ezra Klein of Vox, a news and opinion website. Social distancing is critical to reducing our likelihood of contracting the coronavirus, but we need to address both the dangers of the virus and social isolation.
Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist who studied how social isolation leaves older Americans vulnerable in emergencies, said, “There’s going to be a level of social suffering related to isolation and the cost of social distancing that very few people are discussing yet.”
An International Survey On Social Isolation (2018)
Bianca DiJulio and colleagues of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), an American non-profit organization, found that 22% of US adults, 23% of UK adults, and 9% of adults in Japan said they often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others. Many of the respondents also reported that their loneliness negatively impacts various aspects of their life.
In the US, there is a divide among the people on whether loneliness and social isolation are more of a public health (47%) or more of an individual problem (45%). 83% perceived individuals and families themselves playing a significant role in reducing loneliness and social isolation in society today while 27% saw a major role for the government. Meanwhile, adults in the UK and Japan were more likely to see the issue as a public health problem than an individual problem (66% versus 27% in the UK and 52% versus 41% in Japan).
58% of US adults and 50% of UK adults perceived increased use of technology as a major reason why individuals are lonely or socially isolated compared to 26% of adults in Japan. 35% of Japanese adults who self-identify as lonely said they felt isolated or lonely for over a decade compared to 22% of US adults and 20% of UK adults.
The Rise of Loneliness (2020)
A study by insurance company Cigna found that 61% of 10,000 American workers said they sometimes or always feel lonely, up by seven percentage points from 2019’s 54%, cited Bertha Coombs of CNBC, a business and financial news platform. Among Gen Z workers aged 18-22, 73% said they sometimes or always feel alone, up from 69% a year prior.
Cigna stated that younger people may feel more isolated due to social media. 71% of heavy social media users reported feelings of loneliness, a sharp increase from 53% last year. Among light social media users who feel lonely, the figure was at 51%, a slight increase from last year’s 47%.
Younger people might also feel more isolated because they are at the bottom of the career ladder. Nearly two-thirds of employees who had been at a job less than six months experienced isolation compared to about 40% of workers who have been employed in a firm for a decade or more.
However, those who are top of the corporate ladder reported feelings of loneliness. 56% of senior executives said there’s no one they can talk to, with 69% stating that no one really knows them well. Regarding gender, 63% of men reported feelings of loneliness, showing a ten percentage point increase from last year (53%). For women, 58% reported loneliness, up from last year’s 54%.
The Effects of Social Isolation
According to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, social isolation has been correlated “with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality from all causes,” cited Gabbatt. Social isolation also includes a 50% increased risk of developing dementia, and a 29% increased risk of incident coronary heart disease. Also, it can increase your risk for cancer mortality by 25%, as well as functional decline (59% increased risk) and stroke (32%).
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, noted that socially connected individuals show less inflammation, compared to those who are more isolated the lonely. She added the latter show increased chronic inflammation, which has been implication in various chronic diseases. Holt-Lunstad said they have evidence that this is connected to cardiovascular function like heart rate, blood pressure, circulating stress hormones, including cellular aging.
Coronavirus Jeopardizes Our Inherent Need for Social Connection
The outbreak poses a terrifying and isolating threat to people across the globe. Alice McHale, 70, who lives outside Indianapolis with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said, “I am having extra anxiety now and have trouble concentrating and sleeping.”
Local clubs, religious services, and family bonding bring social structure and joy to our mundane lives. These activities are especially important for those who don’t work or can’t get out by themselves due to age or a pre-existing health condition.
If older and sick individuals are unable to socialize for months, their lives will worsen and relationships forged prior to the outbreak may be hard to rebuild. “Social recession” is an inevitable effect of recommendations made by the public health sector. But we could do something about, albeit depending on one’s circumstance.
Humans Versus “Social Recession”
Cynthia Boyd, a geriatrics specialist at Johns Hopkins University, said they want people to adhere to the recommendation, but they also want to try and encourage individuals to connect with others. From the vantage point of the public health sector, taking a walk outside or having a picnic is safer than dining in a crowded restaurant. Some businesses are implementing work from home initiatives and teleconferencing to balance social distancing and continued collaboration to minimize feelings of isolation.
Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said to ramp up virtual communication, particularly video conferences and phone calls as they are richer than texts or emails. But that’s easier said than done. Sadly, the ones most vulnerable to isolation are often the least tech savvy. One way to ease isolation is to act as tech support, especially if you have sick or older adults in your social circle.
However, those without robust social networks will be the most disadvantaged. These populations will less likely get assistance from others. The government can help the disadvantaged by “funding and supercharging community organizations,” Klinenberg argued.
The dual threat of social isolation and the coronavirus is a complex issue that is currently plaguing the world. While people can use technology to connect with their colleagues and loved ones, how about those who don’t have a robust social circle? Addressing isolation should also cater to the most disadvantaged populations.