I’m heeding calls to self-isolate and yesterday marked my fifth day of voluntary house arrest. I was managing okay, but I suddenly panicked when I wasn’t immediately certain what day it was. Like most everyone my life was marked by regularly scheduled activities and rituals that helped me demarcate the days. I feared I was experiencing the beginnings of cognitive decline.
Google, and a call with a prominent Los Angeles doctor, quickly calmed my fears. Losing track of days is one of the adverse side effects of isolation. A study of volunteers at a research station in Antarctica revealed that participants found it difficult to concentrate and keep track of time. The doctor I consulted confessed that when his plumber on Tuesday wanted to schedule an appointment for Wednesday, he didn’t instantly realize it was the following day.
While losing track of the days will likely be temporary, I’ve quickly learned the consequences of extended isolation and social distancing are statistically more dangerous and severe than the novel coronavirus. Medical studies have documented that the adverse health effects of loneliness and isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Despite all the medical and technological advances, America’s average life expectancy has been declining since 2015 and increased feelings of loneliness and isolation are responsible for the very dire statistics.
Americans are dying from so-called “deaths of despair” — suicide, alcohol-related illness, and drug overdose — at a rate unprecedented in history. More Americans die annually from suicides than car accidents and the drug overdose rate is almost double the car accident rate. Even before the coronavirus loneliness and isolation in America was at epidemic levels.
A Cigna survey released in January revealed that three in five Americans were lonely, with people increasingly feeling left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship. Nearly one-third of America’s elderly live alone, which is highly associated with loneliness. Former Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy three years ago warned about America’s loneliness epidemic and conditions have worsened considerably in the ensuing three years.
The closing of community and fitness centers, houses of worship, restaurants and bars, and other points of social contact have no doubt exacerbated feelings of loneliness and isolation. People afflicted with addictions have been especially hard hit. Here in L.A., the Betty Ford Center is closed, and many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have been cancelled. It is said that alcoholics are always just one drink away from relapsing and continuously attending AA meetings is how many ensure their sobriety.
The coronavirus is exposing baby boomers to unpleasant truths about their mortality and societal expendability. Seventy was the new 50 until just recently, but the coronavirus has made 70 the new 100. Italy’s overburdened hospitals don’t have sufficient ventilators to treat all the coronavirus patients, so they’ve made a decision not to intubate anyone 70 and older. Statistics so far indicate that people 65 and over are more likely to die from the coronavirus than any other age group.
It’s legitimate to ask whether the coronavirus also is going to create a pandemic of OCD sufferers, who also suffer from loneliness. The coronavirus has made the public acutely aware about how germs are spread. Most of the precautions against the coronavirus were already recommended as preventative practices against the flu but some people may now become forever germophobic. Airplane surfaces were long hotbeds of germs but few people were deterred from flying. That may change.
What’s certain is that America doesn’t have the resources and support to deal with the mental health impact of extended isolation. There already is a chronic shortage of psychiatrists, particularly geriatric specialists. Most insurers provide limited coverage for mental health care, and in major cities, few mental health care professionals take Medicare or any other insurance. President Trump wants to strip hundreds of billions from Medicaid, the country’s largest payer of behavioral health services. Most states have also slashed mental health care funding. Mental health care has become a benefit for the well off, despite statistics showing the poor and disadvantaged are in greater need of treatment.
Most diagnosed coronavirus patients die alone because they are placed under quarantine. It’s a cruel irony that more people will die from the preventative treatment than the disease and that they, too, will die alone.
A Shout-Out for the Washington Post
The mark of a great news publication is its ability to mobilize its resources and cover a fast-breaking story like the coronavirus with so many critical angles. I’m in awe of the 24/7 coverage the Washington Post is providing its readers, on the news and guest commentary fronts. There is a palpable humanity to the Post’s coverage that inspires trust and confidence. When Post reporters aren’t serving as stenographers for anonymous swamp creatures in their publication’s hometown, they produce stories and insights of unparalleled quality.
The Post is making some of its coronavirus coverage available for free, but the publication is deserving of reader financial support. If the Post started a fund that was earmarked entirely for non-management editorial employees, I’d gladly contribute to it. (Jeff Bezos can afford to financially reward his managers.)