Loneliness in a pandemic

It has hit the headlines today, but the issue long pre-dates the pandemic, and more people are raising it as a problem – reflected in the nine pages of links the BBC has in its issue guide.

The Chief Executive of Ipsos Mori, Ben Page put this out.

Past thoughts

Shortly after leaving the civil service in 2011, I wrote about the curses of loneliness and isolation. Then in 2013 I wrote about loneliness as a social issue – something that was picked up by Tom Watson, then MP and a senior figure in the Labour Party. In that article I looked at some of the factors that seemed to increase the prevalence of loneliness, including long commutes, long hours, insecure working conditions/temporary contracts, and generally things that stopped people from putting down community roots. Then in 2017 I wrote about loneliness as a public policy issue. This was linked to the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission‘s work. Let’s not forget the huge loss to politics and public life the cruel murder of former Cambridge student Jo Cox MP represented.

Welcome to our world!

When the first lockdown was imposed, there were a number of people involved with disabilities campaigns – from bloggers living with the day-to-day experiences to the official charity advocates, who reminded the general public and politicians that being housebound and spending day-after-day (involuntarily) with no human contact is the norm for too many people.

A similar thing was mentioned when the media started reporting about middle class families going to food banks because the pandemic was the last straw that closed their work place or business, making them unemployed as the economy went into recession. People already dependent on food banks, those that regularly donated to food banks, and those that worked and volunteered for food banks reminded us all that this was already the situation for a million people – which when it hits that proportion of the population indicates the problem is structural. Yet few in Government were listening.

“If money can’t buy happiness, I guess I’ll have to rent it!”

It’s a line from Weird Al Yankovic’s song “This is the life”…which amongst other things lampoons the ladder of riches life that we’re supposedly on.

  • Buying a dozen cars when he’s in the mood!
  • Hiring somebody to chew his food!
  • The life of an upwardly mobile dude!

…in the 1920s? Or the 2020s? Or both?

Yet the planet is telling us that in industrialised countries at least, we’ve reached the limit of how much ‘stuff’ – consumer goods – we can accumulate without damaging the environment. And that much of that damage is inflicted (I don’t want to use the term ‘outsourced’) on those who are least able to resist. As Greenpeace exposes, Why should Malaysia have to deal with the UK’s waste plastic? Just because we’ve run out of landfill space? (In Cambridge these sites were on Newmarket Road where the town authorities filled in the brick pits underneath the shopping car park, and off Coldham’s Lane filling in one of the old cement work pits by the Territorial Army Centre, and finally Milton.) And because successive UK governments have refused to commission sufficient recycling capacity to deal with the waste? Or even legislating to reduce wasteful packaging? You cannot buy your way out of loneliness through endless consumer goods.

“How do you know?”

I tried it in the late 1990s. And Carol Decker of T’Pau told me when I got her 1980s-released album around my 18th birthday.

After I finished my A-levels everyone I knew went in separate directions. It was hard not to feel a sense of being left behind. Fortunately I got a full time job that paid me more money than I had ever earned at that point in my life. It was working in the long-since-closed international trade offices of a big bank. Only the office was small. When my first salary was paid in, I went on the mother of all shopping sprees and came back with lots of clothes and compact discs. By the time of my third or fourth salary paycheque, I had ‘run out of stuff to buy’ – and also had no one to share the things with, because there were under twenty of us in that office, and most people didn’t seem to like each other that much. It would be the final year I’d make one of those ‘mix tapes’ of music as well – one that I labelled: “Staying out for the summer – but who with?” A few months later, I left Cambridge for university – something I assumed at the time to be a permanent move.

Sounds like affluenza?

Yes and no – yes because there were lots of consumer goods to buy, and no because the salary wasn’t nearly enough to afford renting alone, let alone saving enough for a deposit for a mortgage.

Yet as a teenager there was no way I was able to take a longer term historical view of my situation in Cambridge in the late 1990s. Like the rest of the country, my home town was one that was just emerging from the absolute battering it had taken from 18 years of austerity under successive Conservative governments. The Cambridge of 1999 was a very different place to the Cambridge of 1979 – and the number of very large workplaces that had imploded in those 20 years is incredible to ponder as I look back now.

Loneliness as a symptom of working from home?

At the moment it’s too early to tell what the longer term impact of the enforced changes to working mean for those still working but who were previously office-based. There have been some bizarre calls from some organisations and sectors to the switch – whether it be from the bank calling for a tax on home workers, to those that said office workers should be encourage if not compelled to get back into their offices – if only to save the coffee shops and sandwich bars.

One of the things that the pandemic (and the restrictions from it) has forced many of us to do is to reappraise *everything*. It has forced many to do a lot of problem solving in ways they perhaps never expected – such as parents supervising extended home-working sessions for their children in the face of closed schools.

For office workers in particular – especially those that thrive off the company of others, the switch to working at home has been a tough one. It is also one that has created some short term solutions such as some cafes and food outlets converting some of their premises into ‘hubs’ that remote workers can work in. This was something that was picked up in the debate about the 15 minute city.

Is loneliness something you cure? Is it something urban planners design out? Is it something politicians respond to with public spending? Or is it something neoliberal economists say should be left to ‘the market’ to find a solution?

I mentioned Cambridge 1999 being very different to Cambridge in 1979. If you compare maps of Cambridge from the start of the 20th Century to maps of today, or even if you compare neighbourhoods build before the First World War to ones built after the Millennium, there are a number of patterns that begin to emerge. You don’t even need to look at the maps. Go on a walk down Mill Road, and then go on a walk down any of the main roads that go through the new housing estates that have been built in the last decade or so. What do you notice?

Think about it like this. When it re-opens, pop into the Museum of Cambridge to get a feel for what life was like before the internet…and before TV & radio. Then picture life inside a cramped, crowded house with no running water, no central heating, and no electricity. Would you want to spend time inside? Or would you rather be out somewhere?

The lack of social and communal venues and facilities in new housing estates

I can’t think of a single example of a post-war church or chapel design that I’ve been impressed by, let alone found awe-inspiring. With the new housing estates in Cambridge, it’s almost as if the institutions have given up altogether, and left it to others to organise regular services in bland identikit multifunctional could-be-built-anywhere halls. One example of this is the Eva Hartree Hall at the Clay Farm Centre in Trumpington, South Cambridge. I first got a look around the space at the AGM of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign a few years ago… and Damn it! Eva Hartree deserved ****so much better**** than this as a tribute to her legacy.

Mayor Eva Hartree – the first woman to be elected Mayor of Cambridge in 1924. (Image: Palmer Clarke Archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection, colourised by Nick Harris of Photo Restoration Services, commissioned by Antony Carpen)

When it comes to a public policy response to loneliness, part of that solution has to involve how we reshape our cities. Those conversations must involve far more than the usual suspects (of which I’m one of them) – which means consultation methods used by local councils and decision making organisations using more than the traditional methods of outreach.

We have a series of elections coming up in Cambridge at a city and county level in 2021. The conversations that candidates and voters have with each other need to go beyond what past election campaigns have done before. And that won’t be easy – as I covered in a previous blogpost. The responses to dealing with the loneliness that so many of us are feeling in this pandemic may well be in the conversations that we have with each other in the run up to those local elections – where here in Cambridge we have *six* votes to cast for each voter. (City council x3, county council x1, metro mayor x1, Police CC x1).

Above – Punch Magazine 1946 on Attlee’s New Towns policy. What facilities do our villages, towns and cities need in a post-pandemic world where amongst the many problems we all face alongside loneliness, the climate emergency is one of them?

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