By now, you may have noticed a divide among your friends. As social distancing and self-imposed quarantine wear on and more workplaces urge employees to avoid the office, the Covid-19 outbreak has left many people more alone than they’ve been in a long time, or ever. Some are responding by hunkering down into cozy domesticity: baking bread, reading books, taking long baths. Others have begun to fray: FaceTiming with friends is a necessity, not a luxury; the closure of a favorite coffee shop is cause for tears; the walls seem to be closing in. Be kind to your local extroverts. They’re having a hard time.
When people, like those kept in solitary confinement or scientists working in a remote region, know their sentence is nearly up, their mood lifts again in anticipation. Those practicing social distancing due to Covid-19 may not get that any time soon. “Open, transparent, consistent communication is the most important thing governments and organizations can do: Make sure people understand why they are being quarantined first and foremost, how long it is expected to last,” says Samantha Brooks, who has studied the psychological impact of quarantine at King’s College London. “A huge factor in the negative psychological impact seems to be confusion about what’s going on, not having clear guidelines, or getting different messages from different organizations.” So far, many governments, including the United States’, haven’t been heeding this advice.
Perhaps even more concerning is that the psychological strain of loneliness manifests physiologically, too. Harry Taylor, who studies social isolation in older adults, particularly in the black community, says that it’s one of the worst things that humans can do to their overall well-being, adding that “the mortality effect of social isolation is like smoking 15 cigarettes per day.” In older people, social isolation seems to exacerbate any preexisting medical conditions, from cardiovascular diseases to Alzheimer’s, but its ill effects aren’t limited to those over 60.
Alexander Chouker, a physician researcher who studies stress immunology at the University of Munich, has seen radical changes in the bodies of people participating in simulations of manned spaceflight missions like Mars-500. “They were young and trained people not in a condition of real threat,” he says. “The pure fact of being confined affects the body. If you change your environment in a quite extreme way, it is changing you.” Participants, some of whom were only isolated for three months, experienced changes to their sleep, changes to their immune, endocrine, and neurocognitive systems, and alterations to their metabolisms. “Being confined and isolated affects the human physiology as a whole,” Chouker says.
The people who are most at risk from the isolation associated with Covid-19 are the people who are at heightened risk of social isolation in the first place. “Among older adults, lower income people and men experience isolation at a different level,” says Thomas Cudjoe, a geriatrician researching the intersection of social connections and aging at Johns Hopkins University. (In both cases, Cudjoe says that a lack of time or inclination to develop social ties outside of work creates the disparity between those groups and their female or higher income counterparts.) Taylor points out that anyone who is marginalized is more likely to have a more limited social network, whether they are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a survivor of domestic abuse, or just live in a more isolated rural area.
These people may not have friends or family to call, or may be unable to do so. “Some people have posited technology as a means of connecting people, but lower income groups might not even have FaceTime or Skype or minutes on their phone,” Cudjoe says. “People take that for granted, using their devices can be a strain on people’s incomes.” Particularly if Covid-19 has left them out of a job. “Minority bodies are going to be hit particularly hard because they often work in service industries, which increases risk for social isolation and loneliness and coronavirus,” says Taylor. “It could create an economic and social recession.”