Lockdown loneliness reaches record levels

Call for company: Each evening of lockdown, residents of Belper stage a communal moo. © Tony Fisher

Is it the leprosy of our times? The latest statistics show that loneliness is soaring to unprecedented levels. To make matters worse there is a powerful taboo around admitting it in public.

They might be the saddest sounds in the world. In the French Alps, a lone wolf howls at the moon, lamenting the loss of its pack. Deep in the Pacific, the 52-hertz whale issues its high-pitched call to no response. In the Scottish Glens, a solitary cow bellows into the night, yearning for companionship.

If this cow were to move down to Belper, she might feel less alone. At half-past six each evening, the community comes together for a two-minute moo. Instituted to defend against lockdown loneliness, it has since inspired copycats across the globe.

Loneliness has been a huge side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Britain, a report by the ONS found that 4.2 million adults now feel “always or often” lonely, a significant rise from 2.6 million in early March. Photographer Tony Fisher captured the Belper daily moo as part of a project depicting loneliness. “With Covid”, he said, “people have become more isolated”.

The pandemic has rubbed salt in an already sore wound. The number of people identifying as lonely in developed countries continues to grow. Loneliness has been called “a silent plague” and an “epidemic”. For journalist Maggie Fergusson, it is “the leprosy of the 21st Century, eating away at its victims and repelling those who encounter it”.

Research has found that social isolation disrupts the body’s immune functions, which can lead to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and a shorter lifespan.

Like a contagion, it targets people of various ages and backgrounds. In Japan, elderly women are committing crimes to escape their lonely homes in exchange for a stay in prison. Meanwhile, studies show that half of Britain’s 10 to 15-year-olds endure regular bouts of loneliness.

As lepers were deemed toxic and cast out of communities, lonely people feel cut off from others. Some fail to seek help because of a perceived stigma around their condition. “They feel ashamed or embarrassed”, says one Samaritans volunteer, “as though feeling lonely isn’t something serious”. Novelist Deborah Moggach calls it “the last taboo”.

This is changing. There are now dedicated charities, such as the Campaign to End Loneliness. In 2018, the UK government even appointed a Minister for Loneliness to raise visibility around the issue.

While most diseases are spread through invading bacteria and viruses, loneliness derives from emotions we already possess. Historian Fay Bound Alberti describes it as “a complex cluster of feelings, composed of anger, grief, fear, anxiety, sadness and shame”.

Loneliness is also affected by societal changes. Alberti has paralleled the rise in loneliness with the decline of close-knit communities. Before the 20th Century, only 1% of the world population lived alone; now, around 30% of Japanese homes are single-person households, and research suggests this number will rise to 40% before 2040.

But many experts point out that being alone is not the same as being lonely. Thinkers from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Friedrich Nietzsche have celebrated solitude.

So is loneliness the leprosy of our times?

Only the lonely

Sadly so, some would agree. As our lives become more isolated, loneliness has proved contagious. It has been transmitted through our society like an epidemic. It instills feelings of shame, failure and humiliation that compare with those excluded for disease. The symptoms may be very different, but the two bear comparison in how they shape our attitudes.

Not at all, respond to others. By comparing a complex psychological state to a physical disease, we misunderstand it. We downplay the societal changes that fuel it. And while those suffering from loneliness might feel stigmatised, to analogise them to lepers is glib and unhelpful to both groups. Leprosy is now a treatable disease. A full understanding of loneliness seems a long way off.

You Decide

  1. Is it possible to feel lonely when you are not alone?
  2. Does a society have a responsibility to reduce the loneliness felt by some of its members?

Activities

  1. Draw a poster that uses simple, clear imagery and language to encourage people to be open about their loneliness.
  2. Imagine that you have been appointed Minister for Loneliness in your country. Write a speech outlining five ideas for reducing loneliness across society.

Some People Say...

“I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), American essayist, philosopher and nature-lover

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that our fear of being alone has evolutionary origins. The influential neuroscientist John Cacioppo found that human bodies interpret being alone as an emergency. Anthropologists at the University of Oxford subsequently traced this back to the first primates, for whom socialising was necessary for survival. And the human concept of loneliness emerged in reaction to danger. When “loneliness” entered English, it described the state of being too far from others to feel safe.
What do we not know?
There remains debate over how our evolutionary fear of being alone relates to the cognitive state of loneliness. Historian Fay Bound Alberti argues that loneliness as we define it today emerged in the 19th century, as people became less reliant on bonds with others in order to live their lives. Alberti’s conception of loneliness, in which it stems from the individualist philosophy and capitalist economics of modern liberal societies, contrasts with loneliness as defined by neuroscience.

Word Watch

52-hertz whale
A whale with a distinctly high-pitched call, detected by marine biologists since the 1980s but never seen.
Belper
A town in the English county of Derbyshire.
Two-minute moo
Residents stood at their doors and used makeshift musical instruments to take part in the daily outburst of sound.
ONS
The Office of National Statistics, a UK government agency devoted to collecting statistics about British society.
Leprosy
A chronic bacterial disease. Once known pejoratively as lepers, sufferers were historically forced to live in colonies, isolated from others.
Stigma
A mark of shame or disgrace that sets a person apart from others. In the 16th Century, it referred to a literal mark branded into the skin.
Samaritans
A UK-based charity established in 1953, devoted to providing over-the-phone support to people in emotional distress.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
An 18th Century Swiss philosopher whose book Reveries of the Solitary Walker extolled the virtues of being alone in nature.
Friedrich Nietzsche
A 19th Century German philosopher who argued that solitude can be an enriching feature of our lives.

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