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The pandemic’s other toll

Isolation and solitude from lockdowns fed destructive addictive behavior


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The pandemic’s other toll
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As the COVID-19 pandemic has waxed, waned, and threatened in various quarters to wax yet again, the lessons from this unprecedented two-year stretch in American history seem simultaneously more important and less clear. Even as the fog of epidemiological war fades, it remains difficult to find meaningful consensus. Do masks work? It still depends on whom (and where) you ask. Should we practice social distancing? Same answer. Are the boosters worth it? Maybe. Maybe not.

Too often these questions simply elicit prefabricated responses based on ideological commitments. What we don’t hear often enough are acknowledgments of how pandemic strategy affected a quiet but significant group of Americans: those struggling with addictions, an omission that needs to change very quickly because as the data has begun pouring in, the emerging narrative is one of calamity that simply cannot be repeated.

The facts are grim: Alcohol-related deaths surged a staggering 25 percent in 2020. Deaths from overdoses accelerated horrifically, especially in May 2020, which saw a 58 percent increase in overdose mortality rates from the previous year. Among teens, both alcohol and drug use have surged. Moreover, evidence suggests addictions beyond drugs and alcohol have worsened during the pandemic. Pornhub, for example, experienced an unprecedented increase in online traffic around the world directly correlated with national lockdowns.

This is a gruesome portrait of a national culture that was already in a prolonged state of malaise and addiction before the pandemic. Technological revolutions have thinned out communities and relocated work and recreation to the computer.

If the antihuman habitat of the post-Christian economy is an on-ramp for addiction, pandemic lockdowns were more like a rocket booster. Americans were forced into an unprecedented amount of isolation and solitude for the better part of a year and a half, as common places closed or went takeout only, churches and schools went virtual, and the benefits of staying away from a viral infection suddenly dictated every other value in society. Worse, the politicization of COVID response created enmity and gridlock right when solidarity and problem-solving were most necessary.

If the antihuman habitat of the post-Christian economy is an on-ramp for addiction, pandemic lockdowns were more like a rocket booster.

For much of the pandemic, the plights of people struggling with addictions have barely registered. What we know now about 2020 is confirmation that broad lockdowns and closures were a terrible mistake, one that cannot be repeated even as the fight against new variants of the disease continues. Sensible people can disagree about the value of mask mandates and the desirability of booster shots, and local institutions must continue the difficult task of balancing safety with openness. Prudence is hard. But the era of mass isolation must be left behind for good.

Making pandemic responses a kind of shorthand for tribal political membership will keep unreasonable measures in play even long after they’ve become unnecessary. This isn’t just bad thinking—it’s a tripwire for people who desperately need the kind of interpersonal resources that lockdowns take away. As long as the pandemic remains an ideological Rorschach test, any policy, no matter how obviously harmful it is to vulnerable people, will be considered viable and legitimate as long as it “owns” the other side.

Many conservatives still feel resentment toward the way their church or family gatherings were stigmatized as anti-science or unloving toward their neighbor. There’s some truth to that complaint. But it’s also true mistakes are inevitable during such unprecedented challenges. Some elites were more irresponsible than others, but these kinds of generational, history-altering events almost always look clearer from afar than they do in the crucial moments of decision. And some of the “told you so” spirit from certain conservative spaces fails to adequately consider the truly immense human toll from the virus itself.

Keeping political score makes for good talking points and plenty of clicks, but it won’t help those whose loneliness and anonymity have brought them to the edge of the abyss. What will help is the ministry of Christ through his body, the church. The absolute necessity of human contact, in-person gathering, and embodied love has rarely been more obvious. Addictions thrive in the dark, and lockdowns are spiritual blackouts. Going forward, the policy of lawmakers and pastors alike needs to be: What must we do to contend with this disease within the context of in-person relationships and gatherings?

It will take decades to fully reckon with the spiritual effects of not seeing each other. That’s why such reckoning must begin now, and the only way to begin is to commit that those who need the grace of physical community the most will always be able to access it.


Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.


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