By Joanna Sowińska
Everyone certainly remembers the countdown to 2020. However, no one probably expected the question: ‘Do you have your face mask with you?’ would become so common and repetitive in this new upcoming year. Nor that 2020 would result in an economic disaster, loss of millions of jobs, thousands of lives, increase domestic violence, and erect a feeling of loneliness for those who did not get the chance to stay with their beloved ones. In other words, 2020 seems to be the exact contrary anyone wished for. What this article aims for is to shed light on what is almost invisible in the media, namely the psychological consequences of the global pandemic on the minds of millions.
While the world’s economy just started recovering from the global financial crisis in 2008, it is once again plummeting even stronger since the Coronavirus pandemic hit. In the few days of chaos that it took the virus to reach the global scale, no early measures were taken by any European country. This showed the lack of preparation and adequate reaction by states to protect their citizens and foresee the economic disaster that governments are now desperately trying to stump. Without a clear indication of the pandemic’s duration, politicians hope to battle the virus effectively mainly relying on their national counter-measures. However, when excluding transnational cooperation, this outcome appears as a utopia. The longer it will take for states to coordinate on this battle against the invisible, the heavier economic and psychological consequences will be.
What is too often left out by the media are the psychological consequences of the pandemic, which are also important as they can leave long-lasting imprints especially on singles and people living alone. These psychological consequences were studied in 2015 by Holt-Lunstad, a female neuroscientist and researcher, in over 3.4 million people! She concluded that loneliness increases early death by 26% and considerably increases severe depression rates. Today’s global pandemic and the so-called ‘sanitary authoritarianism’ in the countries that imposed lockdowns on their citizens, confirm more than ever the findings of her research. Furthermore, Holt-Lunstad points out that 2020 definitely demonstrated that her results need to be applied and analyzed in the actual context of a global pandemic, and carefully monitored in the following years. In a recent paper, she predicts that it will take many years before people come back to a normal socializing habit. It is certainly the first time we hesitate on how to greet our friends and wonder if hugging them is something they are okay with. The heavy covering of coronavirus by the media creates social fears that were never present before despite the existence of other viruses. Due to collapsing economies, politicians heavily rely on the media to create social concerns among their citizens, so they can justify the limitation of one’s liberty by imposing lockdowns for instance. With similar hypotheses of several scholars, Holt-Lunstad predicts that the fears by the media will be so deep-rooted, that even when the virus will be fading away, people will still avoid crowded places such as nightclubs, music festivals, plane travels, etc. Of course, it is in everyone’s interest to be healthy and that the virus vanishes, however, asking whether politicians have a plan on how to “renormalize” society should not be undermined, considering growing depression, domestic violence, and early death rates.
From a non-academic perspective, many people complain of the effects of isolation on their mood. While some isolated people might be shy and introverted, they still feel loneliness and perceive it as a ringing bell reminding them to socialize. However, if going to a party or a date were already challenging in some ways, the pandemic is definitely making it harder. The best way to represent this reality is not academic. In fact, one should directly delve into the thoughts of people who are exposed to loneliness. For this reason, this article presents a testimony of a person who kindly accepted sharing their story.
“I am 20 years old, and I am a student. I just got out of a 2.5 years old relationship right before the pandemic. At the beginning, it was all fine. I would meet up with friends, do more sport. I just wanted to recreate my own bubble in which I would recover in a healthy environment. Suddenly, a lockdown was implemented in my home country and it felt like my world suddenly collapsed. No more cafes, cinemas, parties with friends, no more badminton training. Netflix suddenly became my best friend. Although I could still call people and keep myself busy with online classes, I felt unprisoned between the walls of my room. I never felt this lonely. Shortly after, I was not able to keep myself busy enough to keep my thoughts away from the relationship I had. The lockdown may have saved me from getting and spreading the virus but definitely made me anxious, self-conscious and many other things that come with it.”
The impact of the current sanitary situation can be compared to the so-called “salamander effect” described by James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. Through this aforementioned model, he aims to illustrate how the pandemic influences the human brain in its decisions. While salamanders mostly live in cool, dark, and wet places, they sometimes walk out of their hideaways to get food, directly exposing themselves to the sun. On warm and dry days, their natural instinct triggers a stress response to the heat which makes them come back to a cooler environment underneath rocks. James Coan explains that humans need interaction in order to be mentally healthy, so socializing could be described as a “comfort zone” – the dark cool place in the salamander’s case. It is also natural for humans to get out of this comfort zone through occasional isolation, in which humans are usually unwilling to stay – the warm and dry environment for the salamander. The neuroscientist points out that, today, a new factor was added to this model: coronavirus. It is as if the salamander under the sun was told not to go back under the rocks because its comfort zone is also a niche for another danger. Similarly, the dilemma for us today is that socializing represents a contamination danger, governments tell us to self-isolate to “kill” the virus, however, we are directly exposed to loneliness and its consequences.
No matter the transnational and big scales measures discussed by politicians, keeping up with sanitary measures on the personal level is a very first key for winning against the virus and thus avoiding neverending months of social distancing. In the meanwhile, one should not forget about contacting people in the need of social support by simply giving them a call or sending a text. If you are suffering from loneliness, or other consequences of the pandemic such as domestic violence yourself, you can reach out for help through 24/7 helplines. The following link provides lists of helplines and organizations you can contact in any country.
Edited by Gunvir Paintal
Artwork by Oscar Laviolette