In early March, as cases of the novel coronavirus were increasing far more quickly than doctors in the United States could detect, the two of us knew we had to change how we and our two small children were living our lives. We canceled birthday parties, medical conferences, restaurant outings, and our children’s classes. We began greeting people without physical contact—not an easy task for two people who are inclined to hug friends and colleagues. We limited time outside our home to essential trips for groceries or work. We joined millions around the world in the unsettling new normal of a physically sequestered life.
As physicians, we understand: The unprecedented drop in human contact across the planet is our best chance to save lives. Much of the discussion of COVID-19 has rightly focused on the millions of lives that could be lost and on the economic recession that may be unleashed as businesses and households cut back their spending. Yet the pandemic could trigger something else: a social recession—a fraying of social bonds that further unravel the longer we go without human interaction. This can have harmful effects on people’s mood, health, ability to work and learn, and sense of community. Just as a strong economy bolsters all of us against losses, social connection is a renewable resource that helps us address the challenges we face as individuals and as a society.
Economic slowdowns are easily measured, and their effects can linger even after the economy begins to grow again. The social recession that COVID-19 could cause will be far harder to quantify, but—as people around the world retreat behind closed doors and sever connections with others—the damage it causes could be no less profound and long-lasting.
Life is just not the same at a distance. Elderly residents of nursing homes are missing family visits. Children cannot play and learn alongside their classmates and friends. Many high-school and college seniors will get a diploma in the mail, rather than enjoying the joyous ceremonies that have produced lifelong happy memories for others. Couples are scrapping long-planned weddings. So much that we all took for granted—meals with friends, office banter, cheering at a game, worshipping with a community—is suddenly on hold. [Continue reading…]