From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Counting Loneliness

September 28. Pandemics have always generated numbers.  Defoe structured his Journal of the Plague Year around the weekly Bills of Mortality which allowed him to track the progress of the disease from parish to parish across London in 1665.  We have the same ambition on a global scale.  Today’s figures are 32.85 million infections and nearly a million deaths.* 

Less directly we can consider quantified measures of physical or psychological suffering.  A number of university departments and other agencies set up funded questionnaire-based enquiries with great speed once the scale of the event was recognised.  These have delivered immediate information although they have often have suffered from the haste with which their sample populations were assembled.  Much the best source of information has been generated by the weekly reports of the estimable Office for National Statistics (ONS).  Instead of creating a fresh bank of interviewees, it addressed new questions to its ‘Opinions and Lifestyle Survey’, an established, weighted sample of the population. 

Amongst the issues measured by the Survey is the key experience of loneliness in the pandemic (solitude, the subject of my recent book, is almost never counted).  There is an obvious risk that repeated lockdowns are causing disruptions to social patterns leading to increased personal isolation.  Two basic truths are revealed by the tables, which apply not only to the coronavirus crisis, but to contemporary society more generally. 

The first is that the instance of ‘often/always’ loneliness, the category where real suffering is to be found, started at around five per cent of the population, and has moved, at most, by a single decimal point over the last six months.  Whatever else it is doing, the coronavirus is not making us much more lonely.  Five per cent still represents around one and a half million people of sixteen and over, and is to be taken seriously.  But in its most acute form, increased loneliness is not consequence of the pandemic.

The ONS then asks a question which previously had not been systematically addressed: the relation between loneliness and disability.  The results are striking.  Those not suffering a self-reported disability have an ‘often/always’ loneliness level of only 2.8% in the 8-18 July, 2020, sample, compared with an overall figure of 6.2%.*  By contrast the disabled show a level five times higher at 14.5%.  Separate categories of impairment display still higher scores – 19.7% for vision, 15.8% for mobility, 21.7% for learning, 24.7% for mental health.  It is not difficult to comprehend why these conditions should discourage or prevent levels of social interaction which individuals wish to undertake, or why they should make the experience of being alone so much more painful.  There may also be a reverse causal flow, with, for instance, mental health problems exacerbated by a lack of human contact. 

This confirms an argument I have made elsewhere, that those seeking to engage with loneliness across a broad front are missing the point.  The experience is above all a function of specific forms of impairment, each with their own dynamic, each with a set of pressure groups and campaigners, and each having a destructive interaction with austerity-driven health and welfare policies over the last decade. 

Here, as with other categories of suffering, the pandemic is exposing critical shortcomings in the provision of support for a range of disabilities, perhaps most importantly, mental health.  Loneliness, in this sense, is a proxy for wider failings in our systems of medical and social care. 



Add Mss on Counting Further to my entry on logs and panic buying, it is reported that Tesco has again begun rationing loo rolls, pasta and flour as shelves empty following the renewed lockdown restrictions.  When this crisis is over, it will be possible to count the evolution of public anxiety by constructing a loo-roll purchase index

One thought on “From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Counting Loneliness

  1. They won’t have been stockpiling loo rolls in 1665. Perhaps one could trace the history of the development of ‘Western civilisation’ via a record of what people chose to stockpile in the face of anticipated emergencies?


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