Opinion Articles

Fixing loneliness – a pre-pandemic problem

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Much of the commentary on the impact of coronavirus assumes a blank canvas. Men and women are described as experiencing for the first time dislocations in their ways of living. In reality, populations have entered the crisis with capacities and behaviours built up over many generations. They negotiate the new conditions on the basis of accumulated expectations and resources.

This is particularly the case with the central issues of solitude and loneliness. In western countries, people began to choose to live by themselves in increasing numbers after the second world war. In our own times, almost a third of households comprise a single person in the United Kingdom and the USA, and over forty per cent in German and Sweden. For the most part this change is a consequence of choice, as a range of improvements in housing conditions, mass communication, consumer markets, and personal income made it possible to realise long-held ambitions to escape the parental home, abandon unsatisfactory partners, find an alternative to moving in with children in old age. Such individuals generally possessed the psychological and cultural resources to cope with the imposition of a lockdown as the pandemic took hold.

Most of those living by themselves encountered solitude in its positive sense, a controlled private space in which they could enjoy their own company, and exercise discretion as to when to make contact with other friends and family. The experience tipped over into damaging loneliness when the condition was imposed by a breakdown in a relationship, by bereavement, or by a range of physical and mental disabilities which made it difficult to conduct an adequate social life. 

Britain faced the coronavirus crisis committed to addressing what had been widely described as an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness. There is a Minister for Loneliness, now the former hedge-fund manager and philanthropist, Baroness Barran, who is charged with implementing a loneliness strategy adopted by Theresa May’s government in 2018. It might be hoped that the experience of a real epidemic would discourage the loose association of a social with a medical condition, although the term is still being used. You cannot catch loneliness walking down the street, nor will there ever be a vaccine against it.

There is little evidence that restrictions on social gatherings have increased the total volume of loneliness. The Office for National Statistics, the most sober and accurate source of information on this topic, has reported an unchanging level of around five per cent of the population feeling lonely ‘often or always’ at the height of the lockdown, a figure that largely corresponds with what is known about the decades since the first investigations were made in the 1950s. Other research conducted by the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study suggests that the major growth in discontent has been amongst those seeking greater solitude, as previously spacious domestic interiors filled up with home-working adults and out-of-school children. There is a reason why the housing market is currently reporting a sharp rise in enquiries about properties with adequate gardens.

If serious loneliness has remained relatively stable since the impact of coronavirus, this does not mean that the crisis has in any way resolved the problems experienced by several million men and women. Rather it has cast an unforgiving light on the fundamental causes of unwelcome isolation. There are three areas of particular concern.

Mental ill-health has been shown to be a critical underlying condition determining the capacity of individuals to resist the pressures of lockdown. The UCL/Nuffield study has revealed that it is consistently more significant than other factors such as income, age or marital condition. Those whose psychological suffering caused or was increased by loneliness are yet more vulnerable, as previously inadequate services are further starved of cash. Britain went into the crisis with an underfunded mental health sector, and the diversion of resources into the medical response to Covid-19 has done nothing to alleviate the problem. 

Some alleviation has been supplied by informal community networks that blossomed in the early weeks of the crisis. Efforts were made by neighbours and fellow residents to locate and support those known to have fallen through social networks. By themselves, these are unlikely to outlast the pandemic. Rather they have exposed the known shortcomings of social services.  These stem from a combination of under-funding since the imposition of austerity after the 2008 crash, and from a still more long-standing evisceration of local government by both political parties. Resources such as libraries, community centres, health visitors, which provide vital support for those enduring a crisis in social relations, have become increasingly unable to meet demand. The Johnson Government faced a choice when the pandemic arrived. It could react either by giving real power and resources to mayors and councils, placing the network of Directors of Public Health at the centre of policy and practice, or it could try to concentrate authority at the centre. It reverted to instinct, with negative consequences across the whole front of dealing with the crisis, including the provision of tailored assistance to those who were finding it difficult to cope with their isolation. 

The final problem has been exposed by the response of walled communities. Faced with the potential nightmare of the coronavirus spreading through overcrowded prisons, the Ministry of Justice at first announced a policy of early-releasing non-violent prisoners, then lost its nerve. It cancelled the programme and instead controlled infection by reintroducing what amounted to solitary confinement across the sector, with all the harmful psychological effects that have been identified since the practice was first introduced in Pentonville in 1842. Care homes were initially fatally porous to infected residents returning from hospitals and to other carriers of the virus, and then sought to control outbreaks by imposing draconian controls on visits by relatives to lonely residents. The restrictions on family contact with those in the homes was already the subject of a vigorous campaign, led by the novelist Nicci Gerrard. As with so much else, the issue has been illuminated rather than resolved by the experience of the lockdown.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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