On Epidemics and Loneliness

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Professor David Vincent, Open University

Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus there was widespread discussion by campaigners and social commentators of an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness.  On the basis of an extensive literature review, Keith Snell concluded that ‘Loneliness is now widely diagnosed as a modern “epidemic” or “plague”.’

Even before the current crisis, this seemed an inappropriate use of language.  It might be seen as disrespectful to those who had died in real medical disasters, such as Aids or Ebola, or the great post-World War One flu outbreak.  Now it appears even more misguided.  Loneliness cannot be caught walking down the street.  Neither is there likely to be a vaccine against it.  Forms of psychological suffering can have physiological outcomes, including a weakening of the body’s immune system, but this is not the same as encountering a contagious disease with direct and fatal consequences.

At the same time the unprecedented lockdown of populations in more organised societies clearly raises the question of whether increased loneliness is likely to be at least a temporary consequence of the pandemic.

The answer lies in the long-term evolution of states of living alone.  The author of the first large-scale study of solitude, the Swiss German doctor Johann Zimmermann, saw value in the tendency for ‘self collection and freedom’, but mistrusted its embrace by women, whose intellects were too frail to withstand its pressures, or the mass of the working population.  Since the late eighteenth century, both the idea and the practice of solitude have become commonplace.  The most dramatic change has been in the proportion of those choosing to live by themselves, a rare practice before 1945, now embracing almost a third of all households.  At the same time loneliness, the condition, as Stephanie Dowrick writes, of being ‘uncomfortably alone without someone’ which was barely acknowledged as a distinct condition two centuries ago, has become an increasing cause of concern.

Loneliness can best be seen as a failure not of sociability but of solitude.  It occurs when an individual is unable to choose the time or the extent of experiencing their own company.  This understanding has ambiguous implications for the coronavirus lockdown.

David Vincent’s ‘A History of Solitude’ is published by Polity.

On the one hand it has made solitude a still more valued practice.  The long-term growth in the culture of solitary activity has equipped society with extensive resources for coping with social isolation.  During the twentieth century the decline in family size, the improvement in housing conditions for the bulk of the population, the spread of mass communications, and a thriving consumer culture of solitary recreations, has endowed individuals with a wide range of survival mechanisms, at least over the short term.  The immediate experience of the restrictions, including the closure of schools, has further enhanced the attraction of one’s own company.  In families where the adults are working at home, the children are about all day long, the garden is small or non-existent, periods of solitary escape have become as desirable and unattainable as supermarket delivery slots.  The most basic form of solitude, strolling out of doors in parks or open countryside, is stigmatised or completely forbidden.  Walking the dog, for two centuries the most commonplace way of taking time out alone, has suddenly become a basic luxury.

On the other hand, the lockdown has made loneliness still more threatening.  The early writings on solitude in the modern period emphasised the importance of movement between sociability and time alone.  Protestant commentators in particular attacked monastic withdrawal, because once the vows had been taken, there was no way back to normal communal living.  Falling into what then was termed melancholy, and would now be categorised as depression, was feared because the withdrawn sufferer appeared unable to talk about their experience and lacked the means of reversing their journey.   Choice was everything.  A healthy emotional life was one in which vigorous social activity could be interspersed at will with periods of withdrawal for rest and reflection.

Now it has become more difficult for those living alone to make physical contact with such friends as an individual possesses.  Intermittent escapes from an empty home to shops, cafes, local libraries, public entertainments, are forbidden.  Material deprivation is a key factor.  The growth in positive solitude since the early twentieth century was fuelled by a rise in purchasing power across society.  Heated, lighted, domestic space became affordable. Teenagers gained their own rooms.  Hobbies and other diversions could be pursued.  Books then radios, television sets and digital devices could be afforded.  The pre-pandemic growth in fears about loneliness reflected the consequences of the 2010 austerity programme, which prolonged poverty, decimated public services and made medical support more unreliable.  Those who cannot afford access to the internet, which for the time being is critical for relieving enforced solitude, are especially vulnerable.

The consequences of continuing inequality are being played out in the tensions between solitude and loneliness.  The lone householder with multiple rooms, expensive communications equipment, and a spacious garden is finding it easier to survive the lockdown than the resident of a small flat in a tower block, looking down on inaccessible green space.  Manual workers are more exposed to serious reductions in their income than office staff who can continue their employment at home.

The temporary remedy has been a revival of forms community support which have been steadily eroded by the growth since the nineteenth century of privatised domestic life.  Only a month or so into the lockdown, it remains difficult to estimate the scale of such interventions.  Doing things together on the street, such as the Thursday-evening applause for front-line workers, is a pale echo of what once were vibrant and pervasive outdoor activities.  It is unclear whether the hastily improvised voluntary assistance for those unable to manage their solitary lives is just a reminder of older forms collective support, or whether it will constitute the basis for new models of social living once the crisis has passed.


About the author: David Vincent is Emeritus Professor in History at the Open University and an Honorary Professor of History at Keele. His research interests span working-class autobiography, the role of literacy in popular culture, and the cultural history of privacy. He is author of A History of Solitude (Polity, April 2020).

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