The COVID-19 pandemic has isolated many from friends and family due to school closings, job losses and various shutdowns. The loneliness that can be caused by that isolation can weigh immensely on people and their health. A professor at Clemson University is arguing that we should consider loneliness as a social justice issue and, as a society, we must be able to remedy it.
“Removal from other people has really serious consequences for folks with regard to kind of a wide range of things,” says Clemson University philosophy professor Brookes Brown. “There’s a lot of research that shows that there are really serious health indications [that follow] from the fact that a person has that kind of experience.”
Brown frames loneliness in a social justice discourse.
That is, she says, that we can think of justice as the “distribution of access to resources that we think are really important” that allow us to do what we want in our lives — like health care or the resources to obtain other necessary goods and services.
“Do we care that people have access to money? It’s not like a fetish for pieces of paper in various colors,” Brown says. “It’s because having money lets people do things.”
If we look at loneliness and health, we can see that people with fewer social connections might have less access to skills and resources to maintain that health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines loneliness as the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact. There’s evidence that loneliness can rival smoking and obesity as a cause of premature death. Groups more likely to face feelings of loneliness are older adults, LGBT populations, minorities and those suffering elder abuse.
Brown recommends a few ways to combat the threat of loneliness. The first, she says, is noticing.
“When we think about the kind of consequences that we’re facing as a society, we need to also include the consequences so often from people being very isolated from those that they care about,” she says.
Older adults in retirement homes and children not attending school might feel the isolation creep in. Mental health advocates are already concerned over the increase in anxiety and depression that the pandemic’s toll has had on children and teenagers.
“It may be that those costs are outweighed by other kinds of risks, in many cases, but we need to consider them when we make decisions,” Brown adds.
Society also needs to plan around these issues, according to Brown. Schools, for example, should understand how best to provide internet to students so they stay connected. She says those who are impoverished might have the added ailment of loneliness and the issues loneliness brings.
“We need to be looking for ways that it’s possible for people who are experiencing extreme isolation to make connections with others outside of the sort of usual pathways,” Brown says.