December 20. In my final Covid-20 post, I want to return to the topic that has occupied most of my working hours over the last three years, culminating in the publication of a book in the midst of the crisis.
Solitude and its shadow, loneliness, have remained central matters of concern as unprecedented controls are imposed and re-imposed on who we may associate with. I noted in earlier entries how, in spite of the continuing drama of rising, falling and once more rising infection and death rates, the indices of emotional wellbeing have remained remarkably stable. As Christmas looms, I have looked again at the most reliable measurement, the ‘social impacts’ data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Solitude is not counted. Now, as in the past, the experience is too diffuse to be readily reduced to numbers, and there is no political imperative to generate tables that will justify or measure the consequences of government intervention.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is constantly quantified. The core category is ‘often / always’ lonely. This is where the serious psychological or physiological suffering takes place, creating an urgent need for formal or informal support. The score at the beginning of the pandemic was 6%, much the same as it was in the quieter waters of 2019. The latest score, for December 10-13, is just a point higher at 7%. For those over seventy it is 5.*
ONS also publishes a time series for the larger group of ‘often, always, or some of the time’ lonely. There are 35 observation points between 20-23 March and 10-13 December. In the first, 24% of the population fall into this category. In the last, again just a point higher at 25%. In between there are minor fluctuations between a high of 27, and a low, in late July, of 20.**
This stasis, which contrasts so sharply with the switchback ride of government regulation, generates conclusions which may hold more broadly for the pandemic.
The first is that managing solitude and loneliness has a long history (my book is available in all good outlets and can shortly be read in South Korean, Japanese, Russian, Chinese and Spanish). Modern societies have developed a raft of techniques for exploiting the benefits of living alone and avoiding the worst of the pitfalls. In this regard as in so many others, Covid-19 struck a population full of resources built up amidst the consumer and communications revolutions in the modern era.
The second is that faced with a crisis for which no country was adequately prepared, individuals and social groups have proved far more adaptable than the arthritic structures of government. Community groups have come into being focusing on the needs of those suffering from the absence of company. Neighbours have looked out for neighbours with increased vigilance. And those most vulnerable have acquired new skills. As with so many of my generation I have gained a new mastery of Zoom and its rivals, without which my isolation from children and grandchildren would have been far more profound.
The third is that we live in time. Any experience, negative or otherwise, is conditioned by its duration. ‘One definition of loneliness’ I wrote in my book, ‘is that it is solitude that has continued for longer than was intended or desired.’*** If there is no ending that we can see or control, then it becomes unbearable. With yesterday’s emergency Tier 4 lockdown, Christmas is going to be a trial for many separated families, despite the special dispensation to form a support bubble with others if ‘you are the only adult in your household’. But we do know that the vaccine is coming.
And tenth and lastly. A fortunate few can manage the experience and find in it some meaning if they have the chance to reflect and write. So my best thanks to Brenda and Anne for creating this opportunity and to those who have read and commented on the posts. We must keep talking to each other.
*Office for National Statistics, ‘Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain: 18 December 2020, Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (COVID-19 module)’, 10 to 13 December, Table 13.
**Ibid, Table 1, Trends on Headline Indicators.
***A History of Solitude, p. 241.