Amongst the many pieces of advice we are being offered as the Coronavirus looms over Spring, is that infected people should ‘self-isolate’. This is a striking phrase: in my organisation, we spend a lot of our time and energy on reducing isolation. Loneliness reached pandemic proportions long before we had heard of Covid-19. Many older people and others who have mobility problems, or social challenges, are of course chronically isolated already, so on the face of it, this particular piece of advice will be hard not to follow. The virus guidance also talks of ‘social distancing’: another phenomena which has already become endemic in too many communities.
In reality of course, people with virus will need food, groceries and medicines. Even if the illness itself is relatively mild, being infected with a virus that looms so large in our minds at present is going to be a worrying experience. People with good social support networks will be able to self-isolate with less suffering than those who are already isolated: they will have friends, family and neighbours willing and able to drop off supplies, even if they can’t have physical contact. They will have people to talk with on the phone. Self-isolation will be most difficult for the most isolated. For people for whom living alone is already precarious, it will bring its own dangers.
Being ill feels like an intensely personal experience: we become wrapped up in the symptoms and feel turned in our ourselves when we are suffering. But epidemics, whether physical viruses or public health emergencies like loneliness or obesity, are social events. Michael Marmot and others have been presenting the evidence for health as being socially-determined for years.
Now would be a good time to reach out to our neighbours, and people we think may be isolated or lonely. It may be possible to establish a connection and communication channels that prove vital during the expected height of the epidemic. A period of self-isolation is no time to feel alone.