Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyMay 1, 2020

How our leaders can minimise the negative effects of loneliness after Covid-19

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Politicians can’t make us feel less lonely, but they can adopt policies that create conditions for meaningful social interaction to flourish. 

This article tackles loneliness at the policy level, which is important, but won’t be much immediate help to individuals feeling lonely and isolated right now. If you’re in that situation, Loneliness NZ has some excellent Covid-19 specific resources which you may find reassuring and helpful. You can also call Lifeline on 0800 543 354 any time.

In my last piece on loneliness and the pandemic, I looked at how and why loneliness negatively impacts on health and wellbeing, and how the Covid-19 pandemic could exacerbate these risks both during the period of enforced isolation and as we move out of it. Now I want to examine how government policy can meaningfully reduce loneliness and mitigate its risks.

Ultimately, what works to reduce loneliness is more frequent and, especially, more meaningful social interactions with other people. What this looks like will be different for each of us depending on our families, communities, values, and preferences, so it’s not something government ministers or agencies can easily influence directly – and nor would we want them to, frankly.

What our leaders can do is adopt policies that create the conditions that allow meaningful social interaction to flourish. This article outlines six important ways to do this: make sure people have enough money, close the digital divide, help communities do their magic, create friendly streets and neighbourhoods, prioritise lonely younger and older people, and invest in frontline mental health services. These policies will work best when they are developed and delivered in partnership with local authorities, community organisations, whānau, hapū, and iwi.

Even before the pandemic, loneliness posed a significant public health and wellbeing challenge, and like so many other challenges, it is highly correlated with poverty, material deprivation, chronic physical and mental ill-health. In the wake of Covid-19, as a result of enforced social isolation and changing norms for social contact, loneliness poses an even greater challenge. By adopting policies that effectively target it, the government can significantly improve many people’s lives and tackle some of the trickiest social challenges we collectively face as we move out of lockdown and into the new normal.

Make sure people have enough money

Levels of loneliness are clearly linked to income. In the Ministry of Social Development’s most recent Social Report, people earning less than $30,000 per year had double the rate of loneliness of those earning over $70,000. The same was true of people living in material deprivation (that is, going without the things they need to manage their daily lives, such as sufficient food or warm clothing). Loneliness was also strongly linked to employment status, with those unemployed more likely to report feeling lonely than those in work.

In the current context, in which approximately 1.96 million New Zealanders (or 40% of the total population) are receiving either the wage subsidy or a core benefit and thousands have either lost or will lose their jobs, ensuring people have a stable, sufficient income is absolutely critical. There needs to be a buffer against the risk of not only economic recession, but also high levels of loneliness, isolation, and psychological distress.

The prime minister and minister of finance acted early in the crisis with the announcement of the Covid-19 relief package, including a $25 weekly increase in core benefits and the introduction of the wage subsidy package. As we move down through the alert levels it will be critical for the government to continue to stabilise people’s incomes and create meaningful employment opportunities. This will be a dual investment in economic wellbeing and physical and mental health.

Finance minister Grant Robertson makes an exit at the conclusion of a Covid-19 financial response package announcement (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Measures to consider include implementing an effective guaranteed minimum income to enable everyone to live with dignity, and further boosting employment, education and training opportunities.

When the toxic stress of living with insufficient income is lifted, people are healthier, safer, and can more easily reach out, care for each other, and support those who are lonely or isolated.

Close the digital divide

How we reach out has changed dramatically under lockdown conditions. Digital forms of connection will remain central for some time as even the lower Covid-19 alert levels require strict social distancing.

This reliance on digital technology has brought Aotearoa’s digital divide into stark relief because without it we can’t work, access education, or maintain social relationships. The rollout of online schooling has highlighted the immediacy of this problem: the Ministry of Education last week had to hastily distribute 10,000 devices and 6,700 internet routers for students in homes without access.

According to the 2018 Census, 86% of households have access to the internet, which means a small but significant minority do not. Most households (92%) now have access to a mobile phone, but this doesn’t mean they also have access to affordable data or wifi.

In 2017, using data from four existing surveys, economic think-tank Motu identified that people living in social housing, disabled people, Pasifika, Māori, people aged over 75, people who were unemployed, and people living in country towns were most prone to having low internet access. There is a strong crossover between this list and those most likely to experience loneliness. The two groups least likely to have internet access were social housing tenants and people with disabilities.

One simple solution, which Motu recommended, is to make the provision of high-speed internet access standard in all Housing New Zealand properties and social housing tenancies. A basic package could be wholly funded or subsidised (in the same way that the Winter Energy Payment acknowledges that access to adequate heating is essential).

The Ministry of Education distributed thousands of devices and internet routers for students in homes without access (Photo: Getty)

Likewise, many people with disabilities access government services and supports (or support from government-funded NGOs). Enabling internet access could be mandated as one of the key interventions for these services. One unexpected benefit of the lockdown is that by restricting everyone’s activity, it has in effect temporarily removed many of the barriers that prevent disabled people from fully participating in daily life – there are no transport barriers or inaccessible venues right now. Permanently equipping disabled people with a working device, modified to their needs as necessary, and a high-speed internet connection would ensure a much more inclusive – and less lonely – society in future.

Help communities do their magic

The suggestion that government agencies should partner with community organisations and iwi authorities to close the digital divide is a great example of the next point: the solutions to loneliness will come from families, whānau, neighbourhoods and communities, not directly from government agencies.

There are thousands of community groups, NGOs, marae, churches, cultural and sporting clubs, and membership organisations in Aotearoa (many either in stasis or operating virtually right now) that provide the actual, day to day, opportunities for social interaction and connection that buffer against loneliness in our communities. When these are at their best, they identify a need in their community and mobilise collectively to meet it, forging and maintaining social bonds between individuals as they go. Central and even local government can’t create these from scratch (and when they try the results are forced and ineffective), but what they can do is to support and resource them adequately, following proven principles of community-led development and collective action.

In the coming months and years, it’s likely that some sources of philanthropic support for community organisations will dry up, meaning government support of community activities that engage and support potentially isolated individuals will be more important than ever. A visionary step would be to create a substantial community-led development fund where a diverse range of groups could apply for support to solve self-identified community needs with flexibly deployed funding to respond to emerging challenges as they arise. While it’s tempting to stipulate that such a fund should target loneliness or promote social connection specifically, success is more likely if communities are supported to identify the specific challenges they wish to tackle themselves (all which are likely to involve building social connection in some way) and trust that enhanced relationships and a greater sense of belonging will occur as a result (not to mention a slew of other successful outcomes).

Photo: Getty Images

Create friendly streets and neighbourhoods

Communities thrive when we know our neighbours and feel a sense of belonging and connection in our local spaces. Our streets and neighbourhoods can either encourage or actively discourage this. The busier the road we live on, the less likely we are to spend time outside and get to know our neighbours. Whereas when our streets are safe, open, and friendly to pedestrians and bicycles, we’re much more likely to stop and chat with others, spend more time outside, and feel a sense of wellbeing and belonging. We’ve all had a taste of what this is like during the lockdown, with fewer cars on the road and the freedom to let kids roam freely on bikes and scooters. Many, like Women in Urbanism’s Emma McInnes, have argued persuasively that this should continue.

This won’t happen by chance. Thriving neighbourhoods require conscious planning to prioritise social wellbeing goals. Developments can be planned with social goals at the centre, that prioritise walkability, opportunities for social interaction, common space, easy access to parks and green space, and well-integrated links to public transport.

The government has a significant new tool at its disposal to ensure that social wellbeing is central to new urban development projects. Formed in October 2019, Kainga Ora brought together Housing New Zealand and its development subsidiary HLC with the existing KiwiBuild unit with the aim of partnering with developers, local and central government, and Māori to deliver new urban developments that support community needs. Work is now underway to develop a more detailed Government Policy Statement that will set the outcomes that new housing and urban development projects must deliver. A clear statement in the GPS on how urban developments should prioritise social wellbeing would have a far-reaching positive impact on our future neighbourhoods and communities.

Photo: Getty Images

Likewise, transport planning can have a big impact on people’s levels of loneliness and social wellbeing. For many people who experience loneliness, simply being out in the presence of other people is a significant salve. Human beings are funny: we don’t necessarily like to initiate social contact with strangers, but we usually feel happier afterwards when we do. For some – like the 33% of respondents in one UK poll who said they’d deliberately caught the bus in order to have some human contact – these incidental human interactions are actually very important.

When it’s safe to return to public transport in larger numbers, the layout of buses and trains can be improved to both encourage social interaction and to minimise dangerous enforced proximity. Rather than packing people in like sardines (which was never pleasant, and is definitely not going to cut it after this), designs like L-shaped seating, armrests, increased spacing between seats, and small tables can encourage people to keep a comfortable distance from one other. Experiments show that when passengers enjoy a comfortable level of personal space, they’re more likely to initiate friendly social contact.

Prioritise lonely younger and older people

So far, the policy solutions I’ve outlined mostly operate at the population level to help minimise general levels of loneliness and maximise social wellbeing. But even with stable incomes, equitable digital access, strong communities and well-designed neighbourhoods and transport systems, some people will still experience debilitating loneliness. Those most likely to feel this way are clearly identifiable by age: those under 2  and those over 75. There’s an important role for targeted interventions to alleviate loneliness among these groups and obviously the solutions will look different for each.

Some great initiatives are already underway on this front. In Auckland, library staff during the level four lockdown were redeployed to phone elderly residents to ensure they were connected with any services they might be entitled to or find helpful. In Taupō, youth health service Anamata Café has set up Bubble2Bubble, a free counselling service for young people aged 12-24 feeling stressed or isolated. Councils and community organisations around the country have worked quickly under pressure to set up similar services. In the US, Nod, an app designed pre-Covid-19 to combat loneliness amongst college students, has been rapidly modified specifically for the pandemic and made freely available, with some encouraging early reports.

Various interventions specifically to reduce loneliness among older or younger people have been tested in the academic context. In one international study, 235 people aged over 74 who lived at home and reported feeling lonely were randomly assigned to two groups. The treatment group met weekly with groups of seven or eight others and two professional facilitators to participate in group activities, art, exercise, or therapeutic writing. The control group received their usual community care. Those in the treatment group became more socially active, found new friends, and reported feeling a greater sense of being needed and valued. At a two year follow up, they had accessed fewer health services, reported better overall wellbeing and had a higher survival rate than the control group.

(Photo: Getty Images)

In another study, young people with a pre-existing psychosis disorder were given access to an app delivering daily positive psychology content for six weeks and tested for levels of self-reported loneliness before, after, and three months after the study with positive results.

When making decisions about services to support, and when allocating public funding for further research, policy-makers should prioritise interventions targeted specifically at younger and older people most likely to feel the effects of acute loneliness.

Invest in frontline mental health services

The full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our collective mental health will not be fully known or understood for some time, although many people will be feeling right now that the intense pressures it has created have taken their toll. As the immediate crisis recedes, we can expect to see an increase in people seeking help for depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health conditions as they work through the grief, loss, trauma, and loneliness the pandemic has created.

This will be a huge challenge to the health system because even before Covid-19, access to free treatment services was very poor. Work was underway to address the challenge: following the report of the government inquiry into mental health and addiction in late 2018, the government had committed $455m in Budget 2019 to the rollout of a new frontline mental health service. The aim of the service is to put trained mental health workers in doctor’s clinics, iwi health providers, and other health services so that when people seek help, it’s immediately available. After Covid-19, this new service will be even more important as an upsurge of demand for mental health treatment services is likely to hit, and soon. As much as it practically can be, the new service’s funding should be boosted and the timeline for it to be fully operational should be brought forward.

The other major plank of the government’s mental health strategy is the establishment of a new Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission. While legislation to establish the new Commission works its way through Parliament, an interim commission is in place and is expected to operate until early 2021. Part of its job is to develop a draft work programme, as well as a framework to monitor and report on the nation’s collective mental health. Responding to the mental health impact of Covid-19 must now be a key plank in its work programme, and its monitoring and reporting should include loneliness as a key variable.

Loneliness is just one lens through which to look at the myriad challenges the Covid-19 pandemic has created and will continue to create, but it’s an important one because it has such a profound impact on people’s health and wellbeing. It’s like a canary in the mine: when people feel lonely, especially for prolonged periods, many other aspects of their physical and mental health can start to deteriorate.

The policies that can effectively target loneliness are the same policies that can improve our collective wellbeing overall: stable and sufficient income, opportunities for connection, safe and supportive communities, and access to targeted help when we need it.

Back before we’d ever heard the word coronavirus, the government had signalled its intention to focus on wellbeing, and it’s important now to stay the course. Yes, we’re facing a major economic recession, and yes, there are all sorts of demands on government funding as a result. But investing in policies that alleviate toxic stress and allow bonds to form and deepen between people is one of the most important things any government can do to minimise the negative fallout in the coming months. Aotearoa has been a role model on how to beat the virus – now let’s show the world how to beat loneliness too.

This research was conducted by The Helen Clark Foundation with support from WSP New Zealand.

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