COVID19 – the loneliness epidemic

In 2018, UK created a Ministry for Loneliness based on the recommendations of J Cox Commission report on loneliness. Then it had created headlines all over – some of ridicule, while others acknowledging that the world was facing an ‘epidemic of loneliness’. And then came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic took over our mental and physical spaces, virtually to the exclusion of all else.

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We began to talk of isolation and social distancing as the saviours. The new normal requires us to wear masks, practice social distancing, stay home as far as possible and if unfortunately anyone falls ill – isolate them. Suddenly, pressing a pause button on our connections has become the way to survive physically.

It is paradoxical – all over the globe the response to the epidemic is one that promotes disassociation from others, while just before the pandemic hit us, we were moving towards starting conversations around the issues of isolation, loneliness and disconnect. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, isolation had been thought of as a major emerging problem, and now it has become the survival tool. It is extracting a huge emotional cost, both for the ill and equally for those who have remained healthy till date. 

On the emotional and mental plane, the experience of lockdowns, self-isolation, and need to be socially distant have been difficult to handle for a large cross section of people. The unnerving feeling of dealing with the changes in life, and uncertainty is all pervading – cutting across economic and social strata. Talk to anyone around you – the inherent feeling and fears are common.

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One discerning look around most of us will find people suffering quietly in this forced isolating time. Elderly relatives living alone, young people in the family facing job loss, women under pressure of work and home, the sense of uncertainty and despair is all around. The pandemic is affecting everyone – young, old, rural, urban, and employed or not.

The loneliness and sense of isolation due to the pandemic also has age and gender dimensions. Studies by the Office of National Statistics and the University of Essex of UK have shown that loneliness owing to the Corona virus pandemic is much more likely to affect young adults and women when compared to older adults. Significantly a larger number of women are experiencing mental health issues than men. Apart from economic reasons (as more women have lost jobs), social isolation tends to hit women harder, and the burden of household also falls primarily on women. The pandemic also causes greater stress for the elderly who are above seventy.  

A lot is being said and written about the mental and emotional cost of this pandemic. So how do we cope with it? The first step is acceptance and the next is combating it. As physical connections have begun to take a back seat, virtual connections have become the strings that tie people together. Webinars, video conferencing, video calls and the like have helped organizations continue their functioning and given many people a sense of purpose these days. The much maligned online world, is today providing meaning and purpose and helping people staying connected.  So go ahead and join virtual groups of interest, an online course, participate in webinars on relevant topics, and try and steer away from the rumour mongering and fake news floating on the net.

Keeping a routine for the day even when one is home, getting some regular exercise, and helping others are key for a resilient response to the emotional burden of COVID19. These things sound very basic and easy, but actually acting on them in a persistent manner is an effort. It is an effort that one must make for one’s own well being and those of others around us. Of course, if there are signs that someone needs professional help, it must be sought.

This is the time when reaching out to family, friends, co-workers, and even strangers is the best medicine. It is also the best time to look inwards, learn new skills or do regular things in a better manner.

We are all in this together – across the globe, so where is the question of feeling lonely or isolated? The mantra to keep spirits up is remembering that the future was always uncertain and will always be so. Negotiating the present in a sensible, safe and courageous manner was and will always be what is needed. 

Published in Hindi in Dainik Bhaskar on 27-8-2020

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