It feels like another time. Ten days ago, on 3rd March, as the coronavirus was first spreading in the UK, health secretary Matt Hancock was asked on Radio 4’s Today Programme whether people who have a cough should visit elderly relatives. His answer was striking then, and it’s striking now: “If you’ve got a cough you normally shouldn’t visit a vulnerable relative – that’s just being polite.”
For those of us working to reduce social isolation and loneliness in communities, particularly amongst older people who are the most vulnerable to the effects of the new virus, this was a microcosm of the health, social and ethical dilemmas we are facing as the Covid-19 epidemic spreads – pitching our basic instinct for survival against our human need to connect.
On the one hand, the advice is to continue more or less as normal – to take precautions by washing our hands and sneezing into our sleeves, but not to take dramatic action to suspend social interaction. The rationale is that this would help to contain the spread of the virus and push it into the spring and summer. It would help the NHS to prepare. And it would ensure that people won’t become fatigued by ‘social distancing’ and start interacting again at precisely the time when the virus reaches a peak.
On the other hand, community organisations work with people they know and care deeply about. Older people are already presenting with symptoms and fear – and younger people too. Could community groups really continue to encourage close social contact across long-standing social and structural divides, knowing that the virus is already in the population and spreading fast? How many of our friends, neighbours, colleagues and loved ones would become seriously ill, or die?
There will be many different responses to the coronavirus epidemic, just as there have been many responses to the loneliness epidemic.
This week our organisation made the choice to play our part in protecting older and younger neighbours now, by temporarily suspending important programmes which bring generations together in person. We did this because many of the participants in our community are the most at risk. But as we grappled with this profound dilemma and made a decision to be proactive in order to protect our neighbours’ health as a first priority, it felt like we were shutting down something we’ve worked for 10 years to create. We may not know for months whether we made the right decision.
What is certain is that the coming months will bring social isolation and loneliness – amongst the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the supposedly strong and the apparently vulnerable – into sharper focus. And what is also certain is that we need to stay together – not just now, but in normal times too.
In the coming days and weeks, communities across the country and the world will continue to face the dilemma. There will be many different responses to the coronavirus epidemic, just as there have been many responses to the loneliness epidemic. In times of temporary social distancing, those same communities will be forced to test even more new ideas without fully knowing what the outcomes will be.
At The Cares Family we’ve invited older and younger people to share messages, videos, poems, stories, drawings, as well as book and film recommendations, digitally. We’re also encouraging people to spend more time on the phone while they are physically apart. A relative in Italy who’s already been at home for a week told me about the re-found joys and laughter through chatting to old friends on the phone. It offered me a little hope.
It’s not just community groups and health services that will need to adapt, but individuals too. Some people will choose to put notes through self-isolating neighbours’ doors, offering to pick up a pint of milk and a loaf of bread to leave on a doorstep. New conversations from window to window may occur, and new solidarities may be forged. With 73% of people in the UK admitting they don’t know the people around them, we may rediscover the value of neighbourliness.
We really do need each other, and to know each other. Our lives truly are intertwined. And when this awful moment is over, we must take the opportunity as neighbours, friends, colleagues and nations to ensure that we turn that moment into a movement – of community, togetherness and connection in a disconnecting age.
Alex Smith is the founder and chief executive of The Cares Family, which reduces loneliness, isolation and disconnection by bringing older and younger people together. He is an inaugural Obama Fellow and Encore Public Voices Fellow.