As the coronavirus stops normal life, trapping more Americans in their homes, some have raised the specter of another health threat: loneliness. Before this crisis seized our anxieties, much discussion centered around the dangers of perceived social isolation and feeling cut off from others.
A 2015 analysis by Brigham Young University found loneliness is a bigger cause of early death than obesity. And so we must ask: Is all this social distancing -- staying away from other humans as a way to curb the virus' spread -- adding to loneliness?
No, on the contrary. With everyone in the same boat, those who felt alone may now sense they have company. The popular hashtag #alonetogether captures the seeming contradiction.
It's one thing to sit home by yourself and see everyone else enjoying friends, family and a good time out. But if everyone is stuck home on Friday, Saturday and Monday nights, it's harder to feel that you're deprived of companionship and others aren't.
Not going places has freed up time -- and the need -- for communicating with fellow humans by phone, email, texting and social media. People I rarely see have been connecting with me, ending their communications with "please stay in touch."
I've heard from an Italian friend in Turin, a coronavirus hot spot in full lockdown. Once hopeful, Donato's emails grow more desperate by the day. His last one predicts that Americans will soon share the tragedy now visiting Italy. Is that some sort of consolation, that Italy is not alone in its suffering? He asks that I keep writing, and I do, every day.
I'd been out of touch with my cousin Janet when she messaged me on Twitter from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Having just returned from London, she was stuck in massive crowds trying to get through screening at the airport.
For an hour we tweeted back and forth. She described the crazy situation at the airport, and I sent links of new reports on the mess she and airline passengers elsewhere were experiencing. I was also easing her boredom.
My friend Don is a teacher in New York City. He's giving lessons remotely, which he could do from anywhere, including far from the city's coronavirus outbreak. Don has received offers to be hosted out of town. He wants to stay in the city, however, so he can experience and share his students' struggles.
My 95-year-old aunt lives in an assisted living facility in Florida. Before this pandemic, Aunt Shirley had been a bit depressed living among other old people who were, in her words, "on their last legs." She mourned the loss of her vital self.
Needless to say, the coronavirus has shrunk her physical world further. No resident may leave the building. No visitors may enter. Of course, all the communal activities have been canceled.
Well, that's now everyone's life.
When she called this week, Aunt Shirley was unexpectedly chipper. No longer just another old lady getting through the day in a cloistered institution, she was part of a larger mobilization -- not unlike the Great Depression or the world war she knew all about. She now has a commanding role as family matriarch, checking in on and advising the younger folks. And we're all calling Aunt Shirley more frequently.
Ironically, demands for social distancing are forcing some Americans into closer proximity. A friend in Houston reports that her bookshop job has been frozen to minimize contact with others. But with her sons' colleges closed, Amanda is now overseeing a house packed with three children and a husband working from home.
Good luck to them. Good luck to everyone. We're all occupying the same strange times, and that's a form of togetherness, isn't it?