Loneliness, Isolation and COVID-19

By Tamsin Ssembajjo-Quigley (Hackney South CLP)

Over the last few years we are a nation who have been continuously told by our politicians and the mainstream media how divided and polarised we are. We have been separated into Remainers versus Leavers, the young versus the old, the North versus the South, the employed versus people on benefits, cities versus the countryside. It has been continually conveyed to us that the list of divisions between us are inexhaustible and infinite.

Compounding this sense of division is the fact loneliness and isolation have also been reported to be exponentially increasing across our society. Though it is definitely the case that this phenomenon may impact some groups more profoundly, loneliness is said to be rising universally regardless of age, educational background or geographical location. The charity Age UK estimates that there are currently 1.5million older people in the UK experiencing chronic loneliness and isolation. At the same time many young people at university, moving away from home and beginning their careers have also reported feeling a sense of alienation. This is despite the fact young people are at an age which is traditionally associated with a high degree of peer interaction and socialisation which are normally assumed to guard against feelings of loneliness.

Contemporary art and fiction has begun to try to contend and reckon with the issue of modern loneliness through novels such as ‘The Lido’ by Libby Page, ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman and ‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing. However, loneliness continues to be a largely unaddressed need in our society with a lack of robust Conservative government strategy and policy tackling it. In 2017 the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness made a number of recommendations of how the government might seek to address this problem. In response in 2018 Theresa May launched the first government strategy stating that loneliness was ‘one of the greatest public health challenges of our time’. The Conservatives promised to increase the amount of green community spaces and to encourage doctors to refer patients who felt lonely to activities such as cooking classes in order to ‘reduce demand on the NHS’.

The underlying causes for loneliness are both complex and multifaceted. The causes have also been greatly pronounced and exacerbated by the Conservative government’s austerity programme. Meaningfully addressing loneliness would invariably mean investing more money in vital public services including education, increasing employment opportunities and mental health services. There have not necessarily been any clear electoral gains for the Conservative government in placing loneliness high on the agenda which is why it feels this issue has been neglected.

However, despite the fact loneliness and alienation are not high on the list of priorities for policy makers health experts have warned that there are serious health implications associated with loneliness. The Campaign to End Loneliness states that these conditions include dementia, heart disease and depression. When I reflect on periods of my life which were particularly difficult and stressful I believe I only survived by feeling linked to and supported by those in the wider community in which I live. Every person in the UK needs to have the opportunity to benefit from the support of an extended network in order to thrive.

In the last few months our world has been impacted beyond measure by the spread of Covid-19. A catastrophe on this scale starkly throws a light on to the reality of how we live and who we are. The human reaction to Covid-19 has shown that the vast majority of people in the UK are kind, considerate and want to support those around them. Most of all it shows that, despite the divisiveness of the last few years, people are yearning to live in a united society.

Whilst courageous retired doctors and nurses have gone back to the frontlines to fight against this disease those without professional medical expertise have also assessed how they can play their part and make their own contribution. Many people who for years may have wanted to reach out to their neighbours and communities but were unsure how are now joining Mutual Aid groups. More than half a million people have also signed up to support the NHS for roles including transport volunteers and check-in and chat responders.

Following the government’s announcement of the sheer number of people who had signed up to be NHS volunteers the front pages of the national newspapers resounded with applause. The Daily Express called the volunteers a ‘people’s army of kindness’ whilst The Daily Mirror said it was ‘an army of kind hearts’. The current mood of the country flies in the face of Margaret Thatcher’s famous assertion that there is ‘no such thing as society’, a statement that has influenced Conservative politics ever since.

Whilst it is most certainly the case that we should praise individuals fighting the virus, we also need to hold in mind the decimation of the NHS by Conservative cuts. In order to pay for the 2008 bailout of the banks the government rolled out a programme of austerity and cut funding to the NHS. This included outsourcing NHS services to private companies many of whom paid staff considerably less that NHS rates, as well as cutting staff numbers and facilities. If these cuts had not been made the NHS would have been in a much better position to cope with the strain of Covid-19. The retired doctors and nurses, as well as the volunteer army cannot and should not make up for the lack of resources due to Conservative cuts. We need to still hold the Conservative government to account for this.

In September 2019 I had the opportunity to attend the Labour Party Conference for the first time. When Jeremy took to the stage to speak the atmosphere in the room was electric and brimming with buoyant anticipation. Each person in the room hoped that we were listening to the next Prime Minister. As we know this did not happen and Jeremy sadly gave his last speech as leader in the House of Commons on 25th March. Although we were incredibly disappointed by the results of the general election I will never forget Jeremy’s speech at conference where he eloquently spoke about the Labour Party establishing a society of unity, fairness and emphatically declared that the NHS should never be for sale.

The reaction to Covid-19 has shown that the humane society which Jeremy spoke about and envisaged at conference may still be possible. I, along with everyone else, am desperately hoping that the world’s scientists are able to produce a vaccine as quickly as possible. When this does occur and the pandemic subsides it will be the case that we will find ourselves inhabiting and navigating a totally different world. None of us know quite what this world might look or feel like yet. I hope when this occurs people will continue to unite, support each other when we are at our most vulnerable and not let old divisions separate us.

This piece first appeared at the Classonline blog