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A lonely planet

The impact of social isolation and loneliness due to COVID-19 has not yet fully revealed itself

With COVID-19’s arrival and the striking urgency to keep our distance from each other and avoiding congregating in situations where people would be breathing down our necks, we have been forced to look at queues and crowds in a new way – as public health concerns.

The loss of queues and crowds, though, has quality of life implications that may or may not be readily recognisable. On the positive side, we may potentially eliminate some of the nuisance factors, stress and anger associated with crowds and queues. But, on the negative side, do we
not lose something if these crowds and queues become extinct?

It appears that we might. Architectural firms and crowd management companies are reimagining our physical spaces – from schools to airports and hospitals to shopping malls. And in so doing, we may never again be as physically close as we once were.

The peer-reviewed literature on the topic of social isolation and loneliness during COVID-19 is prolific, with Google Scholar returning close to 20,000 results on the query.

And while, for the most part, these research papers are centred on the impact of quarantining and isolating on the elderly and/or on people who live alone (irrespective of age), there is wide acknowledgement that we do not know the full impact of COVID-19 on social isolation and loneliness.

And it may be years before we do. In 2010, Holt-Lunstad and colleagues published a meta-analysis of 148 studies involving over 300,000 subjects looking at the relationship between social interactions and mortality.

What they found is perhaps not surprising in its effect, but startling in the effect size. We have all known that interpersonal relationships and social interactions play a crucial role in overall health, but what Holt-Lunstad showed is that there may be a sizeable link to mortality.

Her group’s research indicates ‘that individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships and that the magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (eg, obesity, physical inactivity)’.

And these, you will note, are exactly the types of social relationships that we have seen completely altered and, in fact, shuttered because of COVID-19. We can easily count the close, intimate social interactions we have missed over the past year with those that form the strongest
ties and bonds in our social circle.

The Sunday night dinner rituals with aunts, uncles and grandparents. Or the monthly poker nights at a friend’s house. The missed birthdays, weddings and funerals. The foregone graduations and retirement parties. Engagement parties and baby showers that are now ‘virtual’ events.

But there are other threads in our daily lives that, while more detached and distant, are critically important to our social well-being. Gillian Sandstrom, a professor at the University of Essex, looked at the association between strong ties (family and friends) compared to weak ties which ‘generally involve less frequent contact, lower emotional intensity and limited intimacy’.

And she found surprising power in weak ties, suggesting that even social interactions with the more peripheral members of our social network contribute to our well-being – the butcher or the coffee shop barista, the babysitter and the dog walker.

You see, queues and crowds are simply broad, far-reaching metaphors for what Sandstrom and other researchers have identified for decades: unexpected, informal social interactions that happen everyday, consciously or subconsciously, contribute to our wider sense of happiness and belonging.

And these unexpected interactions – those weak ties that hold such importance and power – that are no longer happening in the midst of a global pandemic are harder to document. It is admittedly hard to measure the impact of these lost social interactions. Because some of them manifest infrequently and in situations where we don’t expect them.

Sometimes, we leave our homes knowing that an interaction with a stranger is bound to happen. And sometimes we don’t. They just happen. But expected or not, they are as much a part of our circle as the interactions with friends, family and coworkers.

To have borne witness to these changes to our social circles and our daily interactions as a result of COVID-19 is to be struck by an undeniable fact: that we have lost something we once had before. And we have lost it overnight.

And, perhaps, this overnight loss of what we once had is the most noticeable change in the aftermath of what is surely to be the defining event of the 21st century: that our physical space, our relationships with those around us, both strong and weak, and our feelings of social isolation and loneliness can be manipulated astonishingly easily.

Rohit Khanna is the Managing Director of Catalytic Health, a healthcare communication, advertising & strategy agency. He can be reached at: rohit@catalytichealth.com

23rd March 2021

From: Research

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