Amid the massive spread of the omicron variant, much of the conversation around COVID-19 has focused on the potential health consequences of the confluence. But he has not focused enough on the health consequences of isolation.
Social isolation and loneliness afflict tens of millions of Americans of nearly all ages, with health effects equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, drinking too much alcohol, or being obese. Additionally, this problem costs the American economy an estimated $406 billion annually, not to mention the $6.7 billion Medicare costs each year. And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis is getting worse, not better.
But our policymakers still have to seriously address social isolation and loneliness, which have reached epidemic rates in the United States, affecting two-thirds of the elderly and 60 to 73 percent of young adults. Instead, there is a tendency to view social isolation and loneliness as a lifestyle choice or personality trait.
Social well-being – the power of a person’s relationships and social networks – is rooted in the design of society, social norms, public policy, and systems. The same is true of social isolation opposite to it, which disproportionately affects groups of people and societies that would normally be oppressed and marginalized.
Take, for example, policies like the now illegal practice of redlining, which has denied housing loans on the basis of a person’s race and isolated entire neighborhoods. Anti-loitering laws, also motivated by racial motives, criminalize people for using public places. Decades of underinvestment have also led to high crime rates and poor maintenance of public spaces in some communities, making it difficult for residents to feel safe when mingling outside with their neighbours.
Social isolation is associated with depression, poor sleep, and poor immunity. It increases the risk of dementia by 50 percent, stroke by 32 percent, and coronary heart disease by 29 percent. It also significantly increases the risk of premature death from all causes. On the other hand, having strong social bonds promotes good health and can boost a person’s lifespan by up to 50 percent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased policy makers’ awareness of social isolation and its effects, which have manifested in many places through increased rates of alcohol and drug abuse, increased reports of loneliness and depression, and higher rates of seeking treatment for mental health problems.
But the public health crisis of social isolation predates and goes beyond COVID-19. It affects people of all ages, demographics, and identities across the country.
This fall, we were encouraged to see that Congress seemed ready to treat social isolation and loneliness as a public health crisis. The House has included $250 million in grant funding for community programs related to social isolation and loneliness, as part of the Build Back Better package. But the Senate version dropped that ruling, and now it’s back on the drawing board.
However, the $250 million would have represented a serious start to stem the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness, with funding directed to organizations on the ground that support some of society’s most vulnerable members.
Policymakers in all areas must think and act at scale to reverse the tide of social isolation and build socially connected communities where people know and trust each other, where they feel welcome and represented, and where they are motivated and supported for civic engagement. This requires leadership, commitment and resources from the highest levels, working across sectors and systems to strengthen policies, structures and standards that increase social cohesion. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has shown tremendous leadership on this issue, as have Senator Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), Representatives David Tron (D-MD) and Tim Wahlberg (R-Michigan), but the need goes far beyond what a handful of policymakers can do. .
Other countries – such as Japan and the United Kingdom – have appointed ministers of unity to lead national campaigns to address social isolation and its effects. The United States should follow suit by creating a position at the White House level or across agencies to lead the promotion of social cohesion. Launching a national awareness campaign should be one of the first priorities of this new office.
Resources are also needed to catalyze local initiatives to increase social cohesion. Let’s find a way to reallocate the $250 million to grant social isolation and loneliness — if not in the next infrastructure bill, then through some other means.
It is time for leaders at every level of our government to start taking social isolation and loneliness seriously – to realize that this is not a personal problem but a public health crisis that requires broad and immediate action.
Risa Wilkerson is CEO, Healthy Places by Design
Edward Garcia is the CEO of the Social Media Foundation