June 10. If we are to learn the right lessons from the pandemic, it is crucial that we are careful with the meaning of words.
Monday’s Guardian carried a disturbing headline: ‘Epidemic of Loneliness’.* This was a phrase much deployed in the public debate about loneliness in the years leading up to the present crisis. It had two sets of meanings.
The first was a general metaphor. It just meant that loneliness was a large and negative event. If we say that someone received in an ‘avalanche of complaints’ we do not mean literally that they were covered in a mountain of rocks, just that they experienced a lot of trouble.
The second was more serious. It was at the centre of an attempt to medicalise a social condition. linking the experience to other crises such as smoking and obesity. By this means the effect was dramatized, and campaigners hoped to appropriate longstanding concerns with major public health issues.
Critics were concerned about this use of language. Whatever it is, loneliness cannot be caught by someone breathing on you. It seemed an inappropriate descriptor before the present crisis, and now it would appear indefensible.
But in the Guardian, no less an authority than Professor Martin Marshall, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, was cited as saying: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic is also creating an epidemic of loneliness, not just for older people, and sadly there are some people who will fall through the net.’
The story was actually about the tragic discovery of individuals who had died alone, either of Covid 19 or of another condition for which in their lockdown they had failed to seek treatment. A pathologist cheerfully described them as ‘decomps’, ‘people found dead at home after not being heard from for a couple of weeks.’
There are many ways in which ill health can be exacerbated by the experience of enforced and unwelcome solitude. It is known that those living alone are less likely to seek medical assistance, even in normal times. Associated forms of depression, or melancholy as it was once termed, can lower immune systems and increase vulnerability to a range of serious illnesses. Conversely, various kinds of disability can have the effect of turning chosen solitude into an imprisoning loneliness.
It might be expected that these interactions will increase the incidence and danger of loneliness in the present crisis, although there remains little quantitative evidence that this is happening on a significant scale. The Office for National Statistics yesterday published its latest report on the experience of coronavirus in which it confirmed that the numbers ‘feeling lonely often / always’ in the lockdown remained at 5%. As in earlier surveys, the old seemed more resistent to this condition than the young.**
With the total UK death rate now passing sixty thousand, lives will have been lost in every kind of social setting. The evidence so far suggests that locked-down interiors, whether care homes or private residences, present the greater risk. A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of the US population found that the virus had spread more widely in the most crowded households, irrespective of population density.*** .
When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company. Solitude has its compensations, and staying alive may be one of them
* Guardian, 8 June, 2020.
* Source: ONS survey of adults aged 16+, 3 April to 3 May. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandlonelinessgreatbritain/3aprilto3may2020
*** Ian Lovett, Dan Frosch and Paul Overberg, ‘Covid-19 Stalks Large Families in Rural America’, Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2022.