For the past few months, public health officials around the world have been issuing guidelines for limiting the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Among these recommendations, one term has stood out: social distancing which broadly means taking voluntary action to avoid or reduce close physical contact between people in order to limit the spread of an infectious disease.
Although social distancing is a practical measure in health emergencies, it also brings a disruption in social norms as people isolate individually or in smaller groups. Therefore, it’s important to talk about the effects of social isolation, particularly for people who are most vulnerable to it. So in the spirit of using personal stories to share some lessons learned, here’s how I’ve experienced and coped with social isolation in the past.
My first experience goes back to high school. I attended a military high school which by design implied a degree of constant social isolation: it was an all-boys school that had a limited number of students (roughly 400 in total) and was placed in a remote area that offered no or little connection to the outside world. We had to follow a strict schedule and there was no TV and no internet. External visitors were largely not allowed and we had to obtain special permission to leave the compound (most students only saw their parents and friends during school holidays).
For a 14 year old, getting used to this new world was difficult at first. To make the transition more effective, the high school implemented a policy of isolating new students for three months upon arrival; that meant we couldn’t leave the school at all and we had to minimize all contact with the outside world (so no visits from parents or friends). 20 years later, I still have vivid memories of the consequences of those measures: many of the boys exhibited strong anti-social behavior at first (increased aggressiveness was particularly visible) but then gradually accepted the situation and found ways of coping. Some of the coping mechanisms were more primal than others (consumption of alcohol increased significantly) but, largely speaking, everyone was able to adapt in the end; the ones who couldn’t, left. At the time, it was hard to understand why these measures were in place and no one was very keen to explain when we asked. Later on, I realized they were designed to prepare us for the kind of life that’s all too common in the military; a life where we might be away from friends and family for long periods of time and where we would be forced to cohabit tight spaces alongside people we wouldn’t normally associate with otherwise. Even though I didn’t want to pursue a career in the military after high school, I learned some valuable skills from those four years, including how to adapt quickly and find creative ways to stay socially active. But it also made it difficult to interact with certain social groups; for example, a year after I joined, the school became mixed, admitting boys and girls. Even though we were a year apart, there were stark differences in social behaviors between my class (the last to graduate as an all-boys group) and the ones that came after us.
My second experience came when I moved to the UK ten years ago. Back then, citizens from Romania were able to travel freely in the European Union but still needed a special permit to work in the UK. I had a job offer from a company based in Cambridge so I signed up for the permit, sending in my passport and application to the Home Office. I was assured my papers would arrive very quickly so I rented a room in a tiny village outside Cambridge and began to wait. Unfortunately, my permit was delayed by four months, leaving me in the delicate position of having no passport and thus burning through my entire savings to make rent and buy food. About a month into my rural Cambridgeshire adventure, I realized some drastic measures were needed to make ends meet: I decided to only leave the house for long walks and limited my meals to cheap food.
Three months later, I had lost about 12 kgs (26 lbs) and barely made any in-person human contact, apart from short interactions when leaving the house. This was a very different experience to the one from high school: firstly, these were measures I took on my own accord rather than following orders from people in positions of authority. Secondly, there were no physical barriers to isolate me from the outside world – my limits were mostly financially motivated. During those three months, I often found myself not wanting to communicate with others because it felt awkward or unnatural; it was a rather lonely experience and definitely one I wouldn’t want to repeat again. I also quickly started to feel the side effects of staying indoors for prolonged periods of time and didn’t want to stare at a laptop screen for 12-14 hours a day so I chose to spend as much time in open spaces as possible; however, there are only so many walks to your local park you can take before you start getting a sense of extreme deja vu.
Even though these experiences are nowhere close as severe as social distancing, I believe they still provide a glimpse into how tough social isolation can be, especially for people’s mental health.
In uncertain times, transparency and open debate about when, how and why measures such as social distancing should be taken are more important than ever, especially when they can have intense and long lasting consequences. I also hope more people will continue to raise awareness of these issues or offer support and advice. The more we talk about them, the easier it will be for people to understand what they mean and how to adapt.