Until the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of “social distancing” likely never crossed your mind. But today, from Singapore to the UK, it has become part of everyday vernacular. Here in Israel, people have been encouraged by the government to keep their distance from others, avoid public gatherings and, if possible, work from home. The logic: if people are less mobile and limit interaction, the contagion has fewer opportunities to spread. The slower it spreads, the less likely it is to overwhelm the healthcare system. However, as more and more people practice self-quarantine and social distancing, another public health threat is poised to emerge: loneliness.
While scientists are scrambling to understand how the coronavirus works, psychologists and other medical professionals have long understood the toll that loneliness and isolation take on both body and mind. People that feel disconnected are more likely to develop depression, experience sleep problems and abuse substances. Loneliness has also been identified as a risk factor for physical ailments such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders, lupus, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. That depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy an estimated $1trillion annually, lends perspective to the magnitude of the problem. Loneliness is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease, comparable in scale to obesity and smoking.