The emergence of COVID-19 as a public health emergency by the World Health Organization has led to a number of precautionary measures such as quarantines, social distancing or in some cases total lockdown in region or countries around the world.
For the first time since WWII, Europeans have been confronted with such restrictions and have to adjust to new realities where the future is unpredictable. Keeping a job and earning a living have become uncertain, especially for those who are already in a precarious situation, leading to greater levels of stress and anxiety. Furthermore, limiting access to normal daily activities, not just going to work, but normal social interactions with others provokes mental health issues, and weakens physical health for those who already struggle to maintain good health and wellbeing.
This situation is particularly worrying for prisoners, who may experience greater mental health effects as they are deprived of external social contacts for a longer period. Children are also affected by social isolation and the mental health issues this provokes. For those who already experiencing loneliness, the social distancing required to stop the pandemic only further raises their feelings of social isolation.
Feelings of loneliness and social isolation, heightened by the current public health crisis, can have severe health consequences for a number of socio-economic groups. Anxiety and apathy, as well as loneliness, are some of the mental health consequences that will persist long after the pandemic ends, while the increased feelings of depression and stress, especially during a time of uncertainty, may have serious impacts on public health, increasing people’s vulnerability to poor health, and weakening society as a whole. Social isolation should not become a norm, even if some specific circumstances require social distancing. These two terms are often used interchangeably but their meanings should be clearly distinguished and used in an appropriate manner. Indeed, it may be more appropriate to talk about “physical distancing” instead.
Tackling the pandemic and preventing its further spread is vital for society, but such measures do not mean there should be a collapse in social contact. The impact of isolation and loneliness should not be under-estimated or fall to the bottom of politicians’ lists of priorities as inaction now will lead to high human and financial costs later on. The strong social and economic arguments should be enough to convince decision makers that they also need to take urgent action to tackle people’s social isolation especially those in a vulnerable situation. Developing effective interventions, including prevention measures is not an easy task during a public health emergency when priorities have to be redefined and public spending has to be urgently reallocated; but consideration of these issues now can widely contribute to limiting the long-term effects of the current crisis.
In an era when digital technology is an integral part of people’s lives, public authorities must deploy their capacity to meet people’s needs and address both the physical and mental health impacts of social isolation. Online medical consultations can support doctors and patients to ensure proper medical follow-up, which is widely affected by confinement. Such a measure will demonstrate the role of digital technologies in the health sector and provide an effective response to patients’ needs – allowing patients to be properly diagnosed and avoid self-medication that can additionally worsen people’s health during a health emergency.
The possibility for online discussion with a health professional or a psychologist is another concrete action that can help reduce anxiety and panic and overcome feelings of being alone or powerlessness. Virtual thematic discussions and group activities offered by social workers can also help combat social isolation – people can be part of a collective where they can “meet” and discuss with others, their common values and interests. Teachers play an important role for child’s socialization, through online classes, as well as extra-school activities that can meet children’s specific social needs.
These are just a few examples of activities that can be adapted to local contexts to reduce the mental health effects of the pandemic. Measures to combat people’s isolation, loneliness, anxiety and panic; and improve people’s well-being, can contribute to the successful reconstruction of our society, when some normality returns, and people can return to their daily lives.