Life

Loneliness has been one of the underlying ailments of the Covid-19 pandemic. Once again, it is the vulnerable and financially insecure who suffer the most. By Stephanie Dowrick.

Australia’s epidemic of loneliness

A lone walker in Melbourne during one of the city’s Covid-19 lockdowns.
Credit: AAP / Michael Dodge

The pandemic isn’t over. Panic about further lockdowns or restrictions hasn’t entirely subsided. How could it? After an abysmal start, vaccination statistics glow. Yet there are stark gaps, especially among the most vulnerable. These include First Nations communities already at serious risk. Meanwhile, streets in many of our state and territory capital cities are filling up weekly with people confusing their freedom to choose with the actual freedom from serious illness or death that the Covid-19 vaccinations are delivering.

Some vaccination protesters are in carnival mood, relishing their public defiance. One wit on Twitter went so far as to see it as a mass outbreak of oppositional defiant disorder. That may be right. But without wishing to give them a whiff of credibility, it could also be that for some it’s a long-awaited chance to be one in a crowd: to be part of a heaving “us” standing up loudly and self-righteously against “them”.

Social activists for far worthier causes – peace, racial justice, climate action, women’s and children’s safety, to name the most obvious few – will know how powerfully your adrenalin can pump when acting collectively. There is an intoxication to in-person collaborative action. Out on the streets you are part of things, even when that’s seriously misguided. You’re taking risks when risks have been curtailed. You are setting aside fear, anxiety, powerlessness, at least briefly. Maybe for a while you can shed aloneness. And that’s no small thing.

Even before Covid-19 and the restrictions that necessarily came with it, we had entered a century of unprecedented aloneness. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports (from 2017) that 25 per cent of households in Australia are single person. A 2018 study tells a grimmer story: of the two million Australians living alone, 39 per cent live on or below the poverty line. They are more likely to be female, older than 55, and/or to have a disability. Those renting privately are in rental stress. Separate sources show those who can’t rent, including older women, are more likely to be living in their cars.

The 2018 study was carried out by Anglicare across nine different community service programs. It showed conclusively that single-person households are more likely to be socially disconnected as well as financially disadvantaged. This matters. Grant Millard, Anglicare’s then chief executive, pointed out at the time, “Being socially isolated is not simply a subjective feeling of loneliness. Social isolation is objective, and measures disconnection from important social networks. Our research shows that people living alone have fewer social connections; a lower sense of wellbeing; and a lower sense of control in decision-making.”

Not everyone who lives alone is lonely. Not everyone who lives with others is spared loneliness. On the contrary. My own research into loneliness as distinct from desired solitude, including the years of writing then updating Intimacy and Solitude, clearly showed that. It’s true, too, that a reliable sense of wellbeing is frequently dependent upon the “sense of control in decision-making” to which Millard referred. Solitude expresses agency and choice. It is a state of relative contentment in your own company. In loneliness, by contrast, you are likely experiencing being without something or someone: without someone who loves you, meets your needs, understands you. Or without the companionship that’s kept you steady in the past. Or without work that says your contributions matter. Existential loneliness has you yearning for deeper meaning. Whatever the apparent “cause”, the effects of sustained loneliness make you vulnerable to deepening social isolation, fear, anxiety and depression, all triggers for serious or chronic mental illness and even despair.

These are real problems, worsened by the restrictions necessitated by containing Covid-19. They are further worsened by a dire lack of adequate mental health services or any meaningful acknowledgement from government that what we feel personally reflects what ails us collectively. This includes massive insecurity around basics such as housing, reliable work, equity in education. It is also reflected in a wilful neglect under conservative or neoliberal governments of community-building, of what supports the common good, of what brings people together most positively and creatively, rather than driving us apart. Add in global-warming fears, then Covid-19, a federal government bereft of vision and integrity, and the national psyche should probably be on life support.

Indeed, it was impossible not to feel outraged during the big Covid-19 lockdowns, particularly in Victoria, when right-wing politicians and their media support crowd declared a sudden interest in mental health. They did this displaying no comprehension of how brutally services have been vandalised at state and federal levels. Nor how earnest reassurances to call Lifeline if the latest public misery “raises any issues for you” won’t cut it in a nation where mental health services nationally are on starvation rations, suicide is the leading cause of death in people aged 18 to 24, and the known determinants of better health – whatever our social class or race – are wilfully neglected.

Butucarbin Aboriginal Corporation is a non-profit community-controlled organisation in Western Sydney. Co-directed by Jennifer Beale and Jack Gibson, its stated purpose is to facilitate the economic, social, emotional and cultural development of Aboriginal individuals, families and communities in what became known during the long New South Wales lockdown as among the most vulnerable “LGAs of concern”.

Their services currently include weekly food deliveries to 63 families, including 280 children. Their state government support for that ends before Christmas, even as Jenny Beale reports that in more than 40 years of community work she is seeing unprecedented levels of poverty. This has profoundly affected a community facing the added stresses of a pandemic. In households that have no electricity, or the greater number that have no wi-fi, or where there aren’t funds to prepay your mobile phone, home-schooling ambitions are doomed. Many of their clients have serious comorbidities. Yet Covid-19 made face-to-face health appointments impossible and poverty for many ruled out easy access to telehealth.

Among Butucarbin’s clients the debilitating issue is not so much one of loneliness as of enforced isolation from family and community support, and the in-person human interaction and relationship that Gibson describes as, “The most important aspect of Aboriginal culture.” He added, “People whose culture is strongly communal are never going to be satisfied by digital substitutes, even if they have access to them.”

In addition to ongoing advocacy, Beale and Gibson in better times run groups explicitly building empowerment and wellbeing. Gibson focuses on men’s groups and reports that members felt the loss of this service acutely during the months of lockdown. The women’s groups that Beale runs, including for older women, enable members to support each other in a widening web of community-building. But, as with Indigenous services nationally, Butucarbin is dependent on funding decisions made by bureaucrats.

The mental health needs of their clients are exacerbated by poverty and the marginalisation of race. There are high levels of unemployment among Indigenous people in Western Sydney. Benefits don’t meet even the most basic needs. In addition to her fears that their clients are being pushed into food insecurity, Beale’s frustration is great that ongoing investment in children and families goes mainly into out-of-home care. Her preference would be to see better support for early intervention parenting programs. Beale and Gibson are trained in one such early intervention program, and have added appropriate cultural interventions for their community. This offers parents and children a vital chance of doing well together, rather than risking children’s removal. “We have work for five full-timers,” Beale said. “And then some.”

Millard’s warning of the dangers of a “lower sense of control in decision-making” resonates here. External restrictions – even for our own good – affect our sense of agency. That makes a clear difference between the experiences of solitude and loneliness. It also makes the difference between organisations that can control their own affairs and those that must wait for others to assess their clients’ complex needs and how they should be met.

Community-building as a direct means to build individual wellbeing is poorly understood and wildly underfunded, and long-established Aboriginal services such as Butucarbin must wait quietly in line.

“The poverty is worse, and people are pretty devastated,” Gibson tells me. “Add in enforced isolation and continuing fears we might go back into lockdown, and you’ll see that Covid has shown up the unfairness, rather than hiding things.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "Lonely survivor".

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Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and social activist based in Darwin. She is the author of many books including Intimacy and Solitude and Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love.