Loneliness before, now and after the Covid-19 emergency
Loneliness isn’t new but Covid-19 is making more of us worry about it. Olivia Field considers the impact of loneliness on individuals and society, and what Covid-19 could mean for national action on loneliness.
Loneliness is something all of us have felt at some point in our lives, even just in small doses. Breaking up with someone, poor physical or mental health, losing a loved one, becoming parents – these experiences, though common, are all key triggers of loneliness.
But for many people loneliness feels never-ending and persistent. A few years ago, British Red Cross and Co-op research found that one in five people in Britain described themselves as always or often lonely. This research also proved that feeling lonely isn’t just bad for our mental wellbeing: it can be devastating for our physical health and productivity, as well as communities and public services. Loneliness is linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, stroke, sleep problems, depression and more. It’s bad for our health.
My colleagues at the British Red Cross see the effects loneliness play out on a daily basis. Many of those we support have no one else to turn to. Some are seeking asylum and separated from their family and friends, others are returning home from hospital and have lost their mobility. It is not uncommon for us to meet someone who has been housebound for years, sees no reason to open the curtains anymore and feels deeply alone.
Loneliness during Covid-19
Loneliness isn’t new but Covid-19 is making more of us worry about it. Since the outbreak of the virus, these experiences are sadly becoming increasingly familiar. People are reporting greater levels of loneliness and most of the population is now living largely in isolation. Millions who are particularly vulnerable to the virus are being shielded entirely with no end in sight.
The outbreak has turned lives upside down almost overnight – people have lost their jobs, stopped seeing their friends, family and colleagues, and started worrying about accessing what most would have previously taken for granted: food, medicine and cash. These changes are exacerbating stress, anxiety and loneliness.
This pandemic could make or break the tackling loneliness policy agenda.
The question is whether this shared experience might lead to greater empathy in the longer term. There have been many reports of people reaching out to their neighbours for the first time, some in isolation are feeling more connected than ever (albeit digitally) and an overwhelming number of people are signing up to become volunteers. Could today’s pandemic be helping more people to recognise the importance of human connection?
However, while the Covid-19 situation might have reawakened us to the importance of connections now, it will likely exacerbate loneliness in the longer term. There is no hiding from the fact that poverty, poor health, bereavement, and prolonged isolation trigger loneliness. The issue is likely, therefore, to continue to increase not just during lockdown but for a long time afterwards.
We’ve seen huge advances in the tackling loneliness agenda in recent years. We have a Minister for Loneliness, several dedicated government funds, and a strategy setting out 60 commitments from nine government departments, including NHS England’s roll out of social prescribing.
Strong progress has been made against each of these 60 commitments, but the government was clear that the strategy is just a first step, laying the foundation for a generation of policy work. Now we need to see efforts being taken to the next level, but the longer-term economic implications of the outbreak may mean we start to retreat at the moment of greatest risk.
This pandemic could make or break the tackling loneliness policy agenda. To avoid the latter, we need to come together to harness the positives that are emerging from this crisis at an individual and community level – such as a greater sense of connection and neighbourliness. Also, as society starts to recover from the effects of Covid-19, we need to ensure the national policy agenda to tackle loneliness keeps up momentum.
Olivia Field works for the British Red Cross as the Head of Health and Resilience Policy. Her team develops policy and practice solutions in the fields of loneliness and social isolation, health and social care and crisis response in the UK.
The issues raised in this blog will be part of the discussion with Olivia at our online Melting Pot Lunch on 5 May.