Coping with a lonesome lockdown in a household of just one soul

Sunday National, 24th May 2020.

At times during this crisis, we’ve felt like a lost tribe. “Stay home.” “Don’t meet people outside your household.” “Exercise only with your household.” Clear though these messages have been, they’ve bustled with a sense of homely intimacy which – for a very substantial percentage of Scots – simply doesn’t exist. For a large number of us, that bleary face looking back at you from your bathroom mirror day after day is your household. Two months in, I’m growing a little tired of that phizog.

According to the Scottish Government’s own statistics, more than a third of Scots live alone, either apart from, without or between partners. That’s some 885,000 people, putting the self- in self-insolating, locked down on their tod. And yet, despite the prevalence of this phenomenon, despite how many of us it concerns, almost none of the coverage has given this reality much prominence, or much reflected on the particular predicament those of us living alone have experienced and will continue to experience as we click slowly through the next phases of this crisis.

Working from home, juggling the weans, struggling with home schooling, furloughed and wondering what the future holds – it is absolutely right that the news agenda has focused on these things. It isn’t a competition. This has been a trial for everyone. Some days, it feels terribly oppressive. But if the cause is just – then all right thinking people should be and have shown themselves prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good.

But as policy-makers begin explaining to the public how they envisage this is going to work – what is expected and what they recommended – their policy needs to reflect the realities of the lives we live and who we live them with. I was a little disappointed that the roadmap out of lockdown published by the Scottish Government’s on Thursday contains no real reflection that not all “households” are the same, or recognition of the particular challenges singletons are likely to encounter as this enforced distance continues to prevail.

Even at phase three of the plan – envisaged as falling perhaps sometime in August, gyp willing – we’re told we “will be able to meet with people from more than one household indoors with physical distancing and hygiene measures.” As James Chalmers wryly tweeted this week, “at some point, governments are going to have to become comfortable talking about the fact that some people enjoy meeting people from another household indoors without physical distancing and not even all that hygienically.”

He’s exactly right. The state can’t require a third of the population to observe a state of perpetual virginity, or make believe that the friends you’ve already accrued are the only people you’ll ever want to have contact with for the next half year. Pretending Scotland is peopled by voluntary celibates or haphephobes (because of course there’s a Greek word for a fear of being touched) isn’t good public health advice – it is just kidding on.

In the worldlier and franker world of Dutch health policy, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment has recommended that singletons in Holland can contemplate a “cuddle buddy” or “seksbuddy”, meeting “with the same person to have physical or sexual contact provided you are free of illness” while making “good arrangements with this person about how many other people you both see.”

Somehow, I can’t imagine the Scottish Government unveiling their own “seksbuddy” guidance here – some cultural differences are too entrenched – but it would be good to see some recognition from the government that “life, uh, finds a way.”

I know what you’re thinking. Or rather, I know what the snarkier commissars amongst you are probably thinking. It is a pandemic. Suck it up. What does any of this matter when it is a matter of life and death? Well, it is certainly something. That’s all I’m saying. To say X is more important than Y doesn’t mean Y doesn’t matter at all. Recognising what we’re forgoing doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be forgone.

Nicola Sturgeon was absolutely right this week to reflect that while “the lockdown restrictions have been necessary to reduce and mitigate the massive harm caused by the COVID-19 virus,” the lockdown itself “causes harm including loneliness and social isolation.”

The tenor of our responses hasn’t always reflected that. Three weeks ago, former Edinburgh Central MSP Marco Biagi reflected: “I live alone in a 52sqm flat and haven’t interacted with anyone in person for 54 days. I’m tired of reading that all I need to do is keep routine, eat well and take a walk every day. Those are the functions that shut down first. It’s like blithely advising anorexics to ‘eat up.’”

There’s a reason why solitary confinement is increasing regarded as a form of inhuman and degrading treatment in the justice system. Even in jail, the solitariness we’re talking about is rarely unstinting. But even so, psychologists have identified that the deprivation of positive environmental stimulation which does much of the damage. There is the “reduced and monotonous sensory input.” The “extremely limited and repetitive” experiences. The dulling “sameness in the physical environment around them.” Sound familiar?

Physical contact is central to human social life, being chronically untouched one of our most compelling metaphors for loneliness. We know a raft of negative psychological effects can follow. Depression, losing the place, fraying at the edges.  As the psychologist Craig Haney has written, “depriving people of normal social contact and meaningful social interaction over long periods of time can damage or distort their social identities, destabilize their sense of self, and, for some, destroy their ability to function normally in free society.”

It’s not surprising that we will respond differently to this, combining vulnerability and resilience. I’ve been lucky, tholing the necessary seclusion reasonably heartily. But as Aristotle understood centuries ago, man is by nature a social animal. Recommending people “try having a blether on Zoom instead” is invariably a well-intended, but terribly trite way of responding to people being honest about the psychological stress they’re feeling in the absence of meaningful social interactions and social connectedness.

It isn’t compassionate to honk at people feeling the want of it that they’re doing lockdown wrong and should be grateful they’re still drawing breath. It isn’t a form of altruism to discipline other people for expressing a greater sense of distress in this moment than you’re feeling, or to suggest that people struggling with the absence of basic human needs are just plain selfish.

Personally and professionally, the prevailing sense of alienation seems likely to continue for the foreseeable. By day, as some of you will know, I’m a university lecturer. Classes have been wound down for a few weeks now. Students are polishing off coursework – or completing socially distanced exams at home. Markers are – as usual at this time of year – frenziedly marking. It helps the days toddle by. But Scotland’s institutions of higher learning were already a hubbub of expectation about what next academic term might look like. Delivering emergency remote teaching for a few weeks during a pandemic is one thing. Delivering three months of study remotely, by contrast, is another thing entirely.

This week, the Scottish Government confirmed what most in the sector already anticipated. The winter term looks likely to be a disembodied affair. “We are planning for a phased return for universities and colleges with a blended model of remote learning and limited on-campus learning where a priority. Public health measures including physical distancing will be in place.” The idea of Freshers’ Week “with physical distancing and hygiene measures” may seem like a contradiction in terms – by here we are. It is difficult not to feel sad about. This is in an endurance test which will see the human dimension of life stripped down and minimised for some time. We may not be able to embrace, for now, but we can at least try to be gentler with one another.

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