• Mary K. Armstrong

Covid Isn't 2020's Only Epidemic

It was March 11, 2020, the day the pandemic was declared. I was returning bleary-eyed and travel weary from Mexico - just in time to be quarantined for 14 days.

Oh no! Two weeks in solitary confinement! I hate being alone. I know my fear is irrational. My brain tells me there’s nothing to be afraid of, but when I’m alone for long periods of time I get very anxious. Knowing this, you can imagine how I dreaded two weeks without another human for company. Thank goodness I had Sammy the poodle with me and an excuse for going out walking three times a day.

With all this time on my hands, I started wondering about the role of loneliness in the wider world. I’d heard it was a growing societal problem. (The number of people who live alone in Canada has doubled over the past 35 years!) When I started an internet search to learn what the experts were saying, my search led me to realize that there were two epidemics. There was the pre-existing epidemic of loneliness, and on top of it, this new Covid-19 pandemic.

I realized we were living with a double bind in trying to manage concurrent epidemics.

The very behaviour that would keep us safe from one danger would make us vulnerable to the other. Sadly, if we wanted to flatten the curve of the coronavirus, we had to deny ourselves the biological comfort of human connectedness, the same behaviour that had assured our survival as a species.

How did we get this way as humans? It turns out that the need to be connected to other humans evolved as we entered the mammalian stage of our evolution as a species. Staying close to one another is how we survived.

Back in those early days of our development as homo sapiens, anyone denied the protection of the group and the warmth of the fire would perish. Once we became mammals, giving birth meant we had to be close to the others. We needed the protection of the clan. Our young were born vulnerable and required years before they’d become fully functioning adults.

It turns out that loneliness is very bad for our physical health. In fact, it’s as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. If we’re lonely, we’re more likely to die early and to suffer from coronary disease, stroke, anxiety and depression. Alcoholism and addiction result from loneliness. There’s an increased desire to binge-watch TV shows or movies. Depression, cognitive decline and even Alzheimers also increase with loneliness.

I learned that, under normal circumstances, the sick feeling we recognize as loneliness is the body’s way of signalling a need for social connection. The ache goes away once we satisfy this human need. I was beginning to realize we were living with a double bind. We need to keep our distance from our loved ones to avoid being infected by the virus: and we need to find ways of staying calm and relaxed within our bubbles. What are we do to?

These days computers bring us in contact with others through Zoom meetings and Facetime. Many of us seniors, including myself, have been motivated to learn new computer skills in order to find companionship through our computers. I’m surprised to find that at the end of a Zoom meeting I actually feel as if I’ve been with those people. It’s about as close as I can come to satisfying my need for human connection. I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but thank goodness for technology.

A young woman is video chatting with her grandparents on her laptop


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