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.

A wolf howls, lamenting the loss of its pack. The 52-hertz whale calls to no response. A cow bellows, yearning for companionship.

If this cow were to move to Belper, she might feel less alone. Each evening, the community has a two-minute moo to fight lockdown loneliness.

Loneliness is a side effect of Covid-19. A report by the ONS found that 4.2 million adults feel “always or often” lonely, a rise from early March.

The number of lonely people in developed countries is growing. Loneliness has been called “a silent plague”, it is “the leprosy of the 21st Century”.

Social isolation disrupts the body’s immunity.

Lonely people feel cut off. Some fail to seek help because of stigma.

There are dedicated charities, such as the Campaign to End Loneliness. The UK government has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

Diseases are spread through bacteria, but loneliness derives from emotions we possess. Historian Fay Bound Alberti describes it as “a complex cluster of feelings”.

Loneliness is affected by society. Alberti paralleled the rise in loneliness with the decline of close communities. Before the 20th Century, only 1% of the population lived alone; now, around 30% of Japanese homes are single-person.

Experts point out that being alone is not the same as being lonely.

Is loneliness like leprosy?

Only the lonely

Yes. As we become more isolated, loneliness has proved contagious. It has transmitted through our society. It instills feelings of shame, failure and humiliation. The symptoms may be different, but they bear comparison in how they shape us.

No. By comparing a complex psychological state to a physical disease, we misunderstand it. We downplay the societal changes that fuel it. Those suffering from loneliness might feel stigmatised, but to analogise them to lepers is glib.

You Decide

  1. Is it possible to feel lonely when you are not alone?


  1. Draw a poster that uses simple, clear imagery and language to encourage people to be open about their loneliness.

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.
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.
The Office of National Statistics, a UK government agency devoted to collecting statistics about British society.
A chronic bacterial disease. Once known pejoratively as lepers, sufferers were historically forced to live in colonies, isolated from others.
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.

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