A pandemic of loneliness
COVID-19 exacerbated Americans’ social isolation
Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults—or 46 million people—live in extreme loneliness, according to a recent survey. An Impact Genome/AP-NORC poll of 2,314 adults indicated that 18 percent of Americans report having only one person or no one to whom they can turn for help with emergencies such as when they are sick or need someone to watch a child. The percentage rose to 30 among African Americans and was lower among whites at 14 percent.
“I feel like I’m in a prison most of the time, and once in a while, I get to go out,” said Karen Glidden, a 72-year old widow who lives in Champion, Mich. She said she has only one neighbor whom she can trust to help her run errands. Glidden’s grown children live in California and Hawaii, and she suffers from vision loss and diabetes.
Stefano Gennarini, vice president of legal studies at the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam), blamed the loneliness epidemic on a “toxic stew” of isolationist philosophies that pervade American culture.
“It’s the basic tenet of the all the major philosophies of the last 200 years that you can’t trust anybody but yourself and your reason,” Gennarini said. He added that a dash of prosperity gospel—the false notion that God’s will is to reward His followers with riches—adds to the isolation. “There’s a cult of success and winning, which pits us all against each other ultimately, and in the end, everybody feels isolated,” he said.
Social isolation in the United States has been growing for decades, according to the General Social Survey. In 1985, about 64 percent of U.S. adults said they had at least one non–family member in whom they could confide. That figure had dropped to about 48 percent by 2004.
The COVID-19 pandemic further weakened bonds for many people, undermining what researchers call “social capital.” About 3 in 10 people reported asking for less help from family and friends as a direct result of the coronavirus, according to the Impact Genome study. Last year, 42 percent of adults became less involved in civic and religious groups, compared with 21 percent who became more involved. In addition, about 16 percent of Americans said their social network shrank last year, compared to 6 percent who reported it grew.
For many, overcoming loneliness will take more than simply joining a club or even a church, Gennarini said.
“We live in an anonymous, urbanized society, and then we go to Mass, or church, or whatever, and we experience the same thing—an anonymous, urbanized society, where everybody is competing with each other,” he said. “To remedy this culture, you have to create a space where people can trust others. [It’s] personal relations over a long period of time, knowing that a particular Christian community is near always and where you’re not anonymous.”
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