This post was co-authored with LaMisha Hill.
Millions are experiencing emotional withdrawal symptoms from the social connections that were once the fabric of everyday lives. With the quarantine in place and possibly extended during COVID-19, the freedom to enjoy dinner with friends, meet up with a date, or attend an important family event may feel like a distant memory.
Feelings of sorrow about social losses or anxiety about when lives will return to the abundance once taken for granted may be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
The social, financial, and health care implications of COVID-19 are indeed devastating and bitter. Many are suffering directly, mourning the loss of loved ones, caring for children and elders as well as enduring financial hardship and uncertainty.
Woman smiling gratefully in the sun.
Yet this time can also serve as an invitation to grow. Author Shauna Niequist writes, “When life is sweet, say ‘thank you’ and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say ‘thank you’ and grow.”
Sheltering in place can include time to be in compassionate meditation, shift the gaze from an internal focus of fear to compassion, providing a glimpse into the experiences of others. This opens doorways to empathy and connectedness.
As an anesthesiologist focused on palliative care and psychedelic medicine and a licensed psychologist working in health equity, our experiences serving patients during times of grief prove that gratitude, connection, community, and compassion are healing.
Even during COVID-19, some lives are still full of song, smiles, and laughter shared on a computer screen. Many individuals are enjoying more time to connect, cook with family, embrace partners and children. Fully appreciating these moments will sustain them through this season of the pandemic.
However, the global pandemic has millions across the nation performing physical distancing, worsening the pre-existing crisis of social isolation.
Social isolation describes a state of inadequate quality and quantity of social connections for effective social support. Many who have long been living in chronic and profound social isolation are enduring physical and emotional difficulties made worse by the pandemic. Some of the most vulnerable populations for social isolation include older adults and people with disabilities.
Older adults rank higher on factors of social isolation, such as living alone, having a small social network, infrequent participation in social activities, and feelings of loneliness. Economic vulnerability, conditions of isolation, and higher COVID-19 related mortality rates pose a “triple-threat” for older adults. Social isolation and loneliness in the elderly have been linked to impaired immune systems, depression, and even death.
People living with disabilities are another socially at-risk group. A 2018 study highlights that this group’s higher rates of social isolation due to a lack of accessibility in the built environment, a lack of emotional connectedness to others, and the lack of day-to-day participation in society.
This scarcity of daily connection to family is further compounded for those living in care facilities, as they are unable to see loved ones by adhering to the instructions to stay away. COVID-19 has compounded the existing vulnerabilities for these and other marginalized groups.
Over the course of this epidemic, it is possible that 4 percent of Americans will die as a result of COVID-19. And 96 percent will live, affected by profound grief and a shocking level of unemployment.
These dire outcomes will be more concentrated in populations living at the vulnerable economic and social margins. Instead of operating out of the fight-or-flight stress response, empathy can be a powerful tool to disengage from collective panic.
Bearing witness to suffering is challenging, but escaping to personal safety can result in being emotionally closed off. Connecting with the lived experiences of all humans increases our awareness, compassion, and capacity to create more social inclusion for all.
Sharon Salzberg writes in her book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “The legacy of separation impoverishes the spirit. Seeking only to protect ourselves, we cannot genuinely connect with others, we cannot see what needs our love, and struggle with terrible aloneness.”
COVID-19 has brought up a range of complex emotions, and hopelessness may be one of the most paralyzing feelings that trap individuals in uncertainty. Many may feel bound by not having the means or knowing of ways to contribute to a solution.
The most socially and economically robust will recover from this season of isolation. Perhaps it is a period to create compassion for and a commitment to a social policy that supports those living at the margins.
With a heart enlarged by compassion, consider taking action by learning more about how to address the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness through the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness.
Reflect on how months from now—when we emerge from our isolated domiciles—we can create new ways to engage with and be committed to each other socially and economically.
Seismic shifts in society like the Great Depression invited the creation of a New Deal, a new social contract.
Similarly, COVID-19 can be an invitation for a new commitment to decreasing levels of social and economic impoverishment. It is an invitation to look at our crisis of social isolation and create a future of connectedness, according to Robert Putnam, author of the upcoming book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.
Author Arundhati Roy wrote recently, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”
More than ever, now is the time and space to realize how and why individual acts can greatly impact others. Indeed, we are all in this together.