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An Epidemic of Loneliness


How much has COVID actually changed our social landscape?

How are you holding up? It’s the kind of opening gambit in a conversational bout that I wouldn’t have expected to become commonplace before the absolute battle that was 2020. As uni students, we’re uniquely placed to hear it more, with finals and the overall pressure of adult existence, only comparable to HSC Students, new parents, and those in particularly stressful careers. Almost universally, before 2020, the expected exchange is one familiar to us all—how are you? / I’m good, you?

Are we good? The mental health impact of the pandemic is something we really won’t be able to see until its proper aftermath, and even then, it’s unlikely the shadow of it will ever completely leave our cultural mindset. A sense of anxiety is a common result of a time of societal instability, observed following the Great Depression of the ‘30s, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. However, that’s not the only thing that the scholars amongst us have observed following widespread tragedy and situational trauma. In the wake of the Spanish Flu (1918-1919), the closest pandemic pre-COVID to modern times, the “massive and sudden loss of life plunged many into a chronic state of helplessness and anxiousness,” a study from the Psychiatric Times made only last year identifying also frustration, grief, guilt, confusion, and a decrease in emotional resilience. It’s important to understand the background of the human response to pandemic situations, because it gives us a blueprint for recovery. How did they deal with this, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, our ancestors?

Much like we did, as it turns out. Coping mechanisms throughout time have depended on the factors of distraction, support, and hope. During the pandemic, I’m sure our Netflix got as much of a workout as story-telling and games would have, in times even before the Spanish Flu, all the way back to the Black Death. They hoarded then, too, though not so much toilet paper as food and supplies. Support and a sense of community spirit is the next key part of emotionally dealing with what we’ve been through collectively. Australia isn’t exactly the best on the emotional front though. If you’ve asked an Aussie about their feelings recently, chances are that the grin-and-bear-it attitude we’re so famous for kicked in, and you received a very casual response. Yeah, nah, mate, we’ve been getting on. This is pretty normal behaviour. Avoidance as a way of coping isn’t the most healthy, but it’ll do in a pinch, especially if you’re lacking people to confide in. And this is really where we begin to see the flaws in our modern day, and our long-term emotional recovery. A Facebook friend is no substitute for the real thing, just as Zoom just ain’t it for the campus experience. It can only go so far, online friends, and for the hardest part of last year, that’s all we had.

For the hardest part of the last decade, actually, that’s what we’ve been transitioning to, and this is what I’m beginning to wonder about: have we become too dependent on online socialisation? Before you shoot me down and call me a Boomer, let’s just have an honest think here. Have we become more comfortable texting than we have chatting in person? Do we get uncomfortable, nervous, and uncertain, when we arrange to hang out? The last year effectively removed any sort of casual friend groups that going out for drinks or parties allowed for… did you have many left after that? The idea that we’ll have to “re-learn how to socialise” is not lost on many of us, being picked up by the BBC in an article about forced isolation and its neurological impact. But arguably, hasn’t this process of taking friendships online as social media forged ahead already done that?

I, as many of you, faced my teenage years armed with whatever the new method of communication was. I’m an introvert, so this was both very helpful and very not. On the one hand, late night chats were a rare form of chaotic joy, and funny videos and memes are a gift. Checking your phone when you aren’t comfortable provides a level of emotional security in awkward moments, handy when you aren’t good at conversation. It’s easy for a smartphone to become a safety blanket. This was the downfall for me. Conversational skills grew rusty, if they were learned at all, and the niggling feeling that I need to check my phone plagues my time with friends as I socialise. This is a problem I can only see increasing as younger and younger people become accustomed to life lived through a different medium than the physical, in-person environment that should be second nature to us all. Physical contact, as much as we don’t acknowledge it here in Australian culture, is an important part of developing a healthy, stable mind. Online relationships just can’t give us the same sense of fulfilment as those that are in-person can. What we’re left with is a pervading sense of loneliness.

2020 lingers on, because it was built on the backbone of this worsening loneliness. Not much actually seemed to change, from where I was sitting, in my privileged living room. I texted my friends, I stayed inside, and life was stressful. Millennials, Gen Z—we grew up online. What the older generations face in loneliness and separation, we’ve been facing unaware for years. Talking online is not the same as having no one, we know. But it’s not dissimilar, either. What we do now, which we didn’t do before, is acknowledge it.

The last element of overcoming the emotional cost of the pandemic is simple, and it’s one of the most difficult things to hold onto in the modern era: hope. Hope is what gives birth to endurance, resilience, and motivation. What have we got to hope for? Our future seems bleak, if you’ll pardon my saying. The planet is dying. The news is full of assault, robbery, crime, and corruption. Our support networks have been whittled down over time from region to neighbourhood to next-door neighbours to family and friends to dot dot dot. Employment is a peril unto itself, we’re facing up to another recession, and an invisible enemy in the form of disease. Life isn’t exactly pretty at the moment.

Finding hope is essential, because to do so we must acknowledge what we’ve always known. The pandemic has been awful, and a tragedy and loss to so many, but it’s far from the only epidemic we face. Homelessness, depression, abuse—our future is not clear just because our COVID case numbers are down. We are a society that lives in the shadows of a future more uncertain than ever, in a community more unfamiliar and disjointed than history has seen. But we are not alone. Now you know. Now we can change. Build better friendships, get involved in your local community, look out for each other, look to the future and see possibilities. Now we can aspire to be better, to do better, to reach out, and ask our neighbour: how are you holding up?


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