Big pharma is having a good war. It is generally accepted that the only way of ending the pandemic is the discovery of a vaccine and its manufacture and distribution on a global scale by multi-national drug companies. Everything else is just dealing with the symptoms. Companies like AstraZeneca are making deals with governments around the world to make available the first vaccines to succeed in the current trials. Never before have we been so aware of the virtues of their technological competence and organisational power.
There remain, however, areas where these companies stand to gain from the crisis in less welcome ways. The widespread disruption to established patterns of social interaction has raised fears that loneliness may be on the increase. As I have argued in earlier diary entries (especially May 27), the first batch of survey evidence suggests that acute loneliness, the kind that causes serious psychological suffering, appears remarkably stable in the pandemic at around five per cent of the population. Nonetheless the preceding moral panic, which produced inflated loneliness figures of over fifty per cent and referred to a widespread ‘epidemic’, has gained in a new lease of life in a time when everyone’s relationships are under strain.
The drive to medicalise what is a form of failed solitude is partly a function of how political change works. Pressure groups and concerned scientists have since the 1950s compelled governments to intervene in a growing range of private behaviours which have demonstrable physical consequences, starting with smoking, and, in recent days, finally causing the overweight Boris Johnson to commit his administration to tackling obesity. Thus campaigners claim that loneliness has worse consequences than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, or having too large a waistline.
As a recent newspaper report has revealed, the discourse has thrown renewed attention on the search for a loneliness pill.* In Chicago, Stephanie Cacioppo, co-researcher with the late Stephen Cacioppo, is continuing work on isolating a pharmacological treatment for social isolation. Another research group is investigating the prescription of oxytocin for loneliness sufferers. Whether these pills are a self-sufficient remedy or part of a psychotherapy treatment, the prospects for the pharmaceutical companies are immense. Whilst serious loneliness is a minority experience, the multiple transition points in late modernity mean that all of us at some point risk malfunctions in our social life. The current pandemic in this regard merely highlights the fragility of the networks of personal relationships that we all seek to maintain. If every time there is a failure of interaction, or a perceived danger of such an event, we could just pop a pill out of its foil sheet, how relaxed we might be, and how great the profit for the manufacturer.
There are of complex ways in which medical conditions, including mobility or communication disabilities, can impact on interpersonal relations. Forms of acute depression can have a range of physiological consequences including damage to immune systems. There is a longstanding debate about whether and in what form pharmacological treatments should play a part in psychotherapy. None of these complexities are resolved by conceiving the existence of a loneliness pill or seeking to put one on the market.
Just as good solitude is a rest from the labour involved in effective social relationships, so bad solitude requires for its alleviation a wide range of public actions. There is no pill that will resist the effects of the coming collapse in income and employment, or the continuing underinvestment in mental health and local support facilities.