Acton Institute Powerblog

How to beat the ‘social recession’ of COVID-19

Before the COVID-19 crisis began, America was already facing a severe loneliness epidemic – marked by decades-long increases in suicide and chronic loneliness and declines in marriage and community attachment. Now, amid flurries of sweeping lockdowns, the struggle has become harder still, pushing any remnants of embodied community deeper into the confines of social media.

We are facing a “social recession,” argues the Manhattan Institute’s Michael Hendrix, driven by a mix of stress over public health, economic anxiety, and the isolating effects of physical distancing. “Disasters often have a way of bringing communities together,” he writes. “But not this pandemic. The twisted logic of contagion means that safety comes through suffering alone. The places with the strongest social ties and greatest connectivity are the most vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19.”

Drawing from a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control, he summarizes the scene as follows:

More than 40 percent of [survey] respondents reported some form of adverse mental or behavioral health this June, with symptoms of depression and anxiety up three and four times their 2019 levels, respectively. A quarter of young adults (ages 18 to 24) said they had considered suicide in the past 30 days, and a similar share say they are turning to drink and drugs to cope with the emotional toll of the pandemic.

The CDC’s shocking findings are echoed elsewhere. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, more than one third of Americans have reported suffering from severe anxiety. Fifty-five percent of those who have experienced financial hardship during the pandemic report the same. Today, just 14 percent of American adults say they’re very happy, down from nearly one third in 2018. And half of Americans say they feel isolated. No wonder that so many Americans also say the coronavirus pandemic is harming their mental health. Texts to a federal mental health hotline jumped by 1,000 percent in April year-on-year. Suspected drug overdoses rose by 18 percent in March, 29 percent in April, and 42 percent in May. And Covid-19 is still wreaking havoc on our lives and livelihoods. America is facing a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a mental health crisis all in one.

In response, policymakers have proved predictably inept, relying on a tired mix of so-called stimulus and monetarist tweaks to curb the economic pain, all while demonizing those who attempt to gather in public – even those who adhered to the politicians’ protocols. As has become particularly evident in the debates over school closures, even those who acknowledge the problem are not willing to take any risks to address it. Even when public health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics were keen to bring the issue to the forefront, all it took was a few chirps from public-sector unions for all social side effects to become secondary line-item concerns.

Rather than acknowledging the full range of health risks at play – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and otherwise – our political class has opted for overemphasis on an excessively narrow set of concerns. Paired with the hum-drum incompetence we have come to expect from our governing officials, the cultural conversation has become misaligned on multiple fronts.

“Unfortunately,” Hendrix observes, “most our public leaders know far better how to pull a fiscal lever than to replenish social capital – or even to coordinate contact tracing, mass testing, selective quarantines, vaccine prizes, or other such signs of effective leadership during a pandemic.”

Those frustrations loom large. Yet outside of lifting restrictions or implementing effective testing regimes, policy will have plenty of limits when it comes to curbing loneliness. In turn, we would do well to direct our attention elsewhere. Hendrix points to the example of Hurricane Katrina, after which many survivors experienced severe emotional stress (known as “Katrina brain”), reminding us how “the city’s deep-rooted community helped many cope and recover.” According to New York University historian Jacob Remes, who studied the aftermath in New Orleans, “Dense social networks in communities save people. That’s what makes communities resilient, and it’s what then helps communities recover.”

What we need, it would appear, is renewed intentionality and innovation in actual, true community – not reactive resistance to the fruits of freedom, but faithful stewardship of each new blessing and opportunity as it arises. The idols of modernity have long tempted us toward isolation and individualism, but when it comes to this, the pandemic may serve as a wake-up call, helping us prioritize human connection where it’s currently lacking – and see and appreciate it where it already exists.

This can occur even amid our current season of social distancing, as we have already seen across a number of spheres. Churches are innovating new ways of bringing people together and communicating the Gospel, challenging traditional constraints and demonstrating the value of embodied spiritual community. The increasing acceptance of virtual schooling is leading to widespread migration to homeschooling, neighborhood co-ops, and private institutions – all of which is sure to inspire new paradigms of community and connection outside of our stagnant, postwar bureaucracies. In the workplace, many are now making do with “virtual happy hours,” but more importantly, they are starting to realize that social connection is, indeed, a large part of economic life and always has been. In neighborhoods like my own, less interaction in public spaces has led each of us to deepen connections with our neighbors – creating “isolation cells” in small platoons as a way of coping with loneliness elsewhere.

As Hendrix explains, before and beyond any policy solutions, we need an attentiveness to human and community needs. Our hearts must place loving our neighbors over and above the temptation of narrow isolation and self-protection:

The charge to every American during this pandemic of Covid-19 should be to ask “What particular role is my community asking me to play?” It could be to serve, to give, to care, or to cure. Of course, the elites of our communities and our country have a unique role to play in helping combat the virus and restoring our civic health. But each of us also has a civic responsibility to seek the best for our neighbors without expecting anything in return.

Much of this is due to our current season, yes. But with continued investment, the revival of America’s civic fabric may be closer than it’s been in recent decades. “In the meantime,” Hendrix concludes, “we must all do our part to sustain what binds us together: our families, faith, friends, and work, and every other such institution. These are the binding threads of America’s social fabric, and we are the weavers. And, however weakened and frayed, they are what will carry us through this crisis together.”

We are called to a higher freedom than the isolationism of our age, one that fully and actively embodies the space between individual and state, but not only as a means to a political end or public-health objective. It is up to us, then, to be the moral witnesses of such freedom, investing in our neighbors and communities and tackling the challenge of loneliness where it begins.

(Photo credit: Willie Verhulst. CC BY-ND 2.0.)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.