How to think about loneliness in the midst of a pandemic

A 2017 report found that more than one third of Britons over 75 experienced feelings of loneliness that were out of their control. (Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images)

“Social distancing” is a strong contender for the phrase of the year, but listen carefully to public health experts and you’ll probably hear them recommending something else.

What the World Health Organization and others encourage instead is physical distancing, a small difference that makes a big point: social connection is still good for us, even when being together is not.

That message matters especially to people battling another scourge of public health: loneliness. In 2017, the UK’s Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness identified chronic loneliness as “a day-to-day reality which, over time, can grind us down, affecting our health and wellbeing and damaging our ability to connect with others”. It’s a condition that’s considered to be widespread and have severe effects on individual and public health, akin to smoking, diabetes, or heart disease.

That’s particularly true for older people, who may have fewer opportunities to connect with others, and who may have health issues that are compounded by the effects of chronic loneliness. The Cox Commission found that more than one third of Britons over 75 experienced feelings of loneliness that were out of their control.

It’s important to know that an age of physical distancing does not inevitably lead to an age of loneliness, says Kate Shurety, executive director of the Campaign to End Loneliness. While much about daily life has changed for the foreseeable future, there are still many ways for friends, neighbours, and local officials to foster social connections for the health of their communities.

CityMetric spoke with Shurety about the social challenges of a prolonged lockdown and the public health response to loneliness. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What should people understand about loneliness right now?

A lot of people are coming into this with a lot of anxiety about loneliness, so it's quite important to try and take some of that anxiety out. Social isolation and physical isolation are not the same thing. Physical isolation doesn't mean you will automatically become socially isolated, and even for people who are socially isolated, loneliness isn't inevitable. They do exacerbate, and they can complicate and they can trigger loneliness, but in and of themselves, they needn’t be the result.

We all experience loneliness. We shouldn't necessarily be scared of it in its own right, because it is a useful prompt. When we feel lonely, it is a reminder that we need human connection and that we need to reach out to people around us.

It becomes problematic and it has a public health impact when people are lonely for a long time and there's no obvious way out of it. It can become a sort of self-fulfilling cycle in that sense, and that chronic loneliness happens more in later life. People's sense of identity is very caught up in how connected they might feel with other people, so cultivating a sense of community is really important.

Public health networks are dealing with a flood of issues right now. What should they know about how loneliness factors into all of it?

The public health impacts of loneliness are going to kick in on a different time scale to the public health impacts of Covid-19. There are correlations between people’s stress levels and how lonely they are, as well as people's quality of sleep and how lonely they are, but they're not going to be immediate.

If people are isolated and feel lonely for a prolonged period of time, you should try to put interventions in place alongside a whole range of other public health issues surrounding the infection. If there are interventions that can mitigate against that, it's worth thinking those through now, because prevention is always better than cure.

As one example: there was a pilot project last year that the Royal Mail was doing about understanding who is living on their own and what role the mail can play, or what role gas engineers can play, in helping those people feel connected. Those workers are often out and about, and they're often in and out of people's houses. It’s worth understanding who in this great infrastructure out there is making contact with people, and who could identify people who are at risk of feeling lonely or disconnected for a prolonged period of time. Think about how you can build connections into those regular interactions.

People who are feeling very lonely or chronically lonely often talk about feeling invisible or not feeling heard. So just being open to recognising another human being’s presence is really, really helpful. It's very hard to take action at that stage, so a lot of our messaging is around other people who might interact, including public service workers who can be able to recognise that somebody might be feeling lonely.

How do neighbours fit into this discussion?

We talk a lot about being aware of who's living around you, and who’s on their own. In my area, we all made sure we had each other's phone numbers as soon as it looked like we were heading towards a lockdown situation. And we all touch base every now and then as a group of neighbours, just to see if anybody needs anything. That’s hopefully a valuable lesson that we take from this period, so that we do keep an eye on people and have that sense of being a neighbour and knowing who might need a bit of extra support.

What should a person do if they want to help someone in their neighbourhood who’s alone right now? How should you get in touch without getting close?

There will be various advice on this, but you could drop a note through the door or knock on the door and chat from a distance and say, “Just to let you know, I'm here. This is my phone number. I appreciate that you might well have everything you need, but if at any point you don't, or you just want to chat, you can give me a call.”

But don’t make assumptions: Just because someone's on their own, they might not be lonely. Some will be quite happy, but equally, people's relationship with this experience is going to change. Someone who's fine now might not be fine in two or three weeks time. So have those conversations early so you've built a bit of a relationship and people feel they can lean on you if they need to.

We're also trying to encourage people to use the phone because it's much better than just a text message or a message on social media. Hearing a voice is as close as we've got to being physically present with each other at the moment. It’s particularly important for people who can’t access other digital technology, whether it's because they don't have the resources or the skills, or they’re just of a different generation. Hopefully the phone is something that's still pretty accessible for most people.

There has been a conversation in recent years about social media as a driver of loneliness. Does that still apply today?

Social media can be really helpful, actually, for tackling loneliness, if it's used to encourage people to find their community, or to reconnect with old friends, or to reconnect with people who you're not going to be able to see in any other way for some time.

There are some real positives there, but there are some real limitations, too. Technology's never going to be able to create that warmth or compassion that comes with actually being physically present with somebody. You can't be quiet on social media in the way that you can be quiet in someone's presence. That can be quite an intimate thing.

There has been, especially amongst younger populations, a tendency for social media to exacerbate a sense of isolation and potentially being on your own, because you're constantly looking at what else there is to keep up with, and that can be quite alienating if you're always looking at everybody else's perfectly curated life. You're not actually connecting with a person, you're connecting with a persona, and that's where technology can have a more negative impact on people's experience of loneliness.

Somewhat counterintuitively, I’ve felt more connected with a lot of people in recent weeks, and I’ve heard that from others, too. Do you think that’s true for a lot of people right now? What might be behind that?

I think that is the case. Suddenly everyone's got a little bit more time, and a little bit of loss. Another thing I would say as my own personal anecdote, I usually work in central London, but I'm in my neighbourhood all the time now. I am talking to my neighbours – at an appropriate distance, I hasten to add – in a way that I normally wouldn't. Normally I just come in tired and go in the house, whereas now I'm much more in tune with what's actually going on on my doorstep, and that feels really good. Those are the relationships I've not fostered or cultivated, particularly, but that’s something I’m changing now.

Adam Sneed is managing editor of CityMetric. 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.