This essay is part of a special series of the American Project that seeks to address the crisis of loneliness during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
New Yorkers are used to hearing sirens. And then came March’s round-the-clock ambulance wails, every hour of every day. Through the barred windows of my Brooklyn apartment, I watched the streets empty as an unseen contagion drove us inside.
Before the razor wire and guard dogs on Fifth Avenue, before the mass graves in the city’s potter’s field, New York was not perfect, but we had each other. Now, it seems, we are united only by fear and loneliness. “People don’t have anything to lose,” cried one looter smashing the windows on a Duane Reade drugstore in Lower Manhattan this past May. “In the right circumstances, ka-boom.” I’d like to believe he’s wrong.
Covid-19 has targeted not only our lives, but our life together as Americans. As of mid-August 2020, some 165,000 Americans have died from Covid-19; roughly 50 million people are out of work and a third are not making their full housing payments on time; millions of children will likely not be returning to school this fall; and a third of practicing Christians have stopped going to church.
But these numbers only tell part of the story. In reality, America is experiencing a social recession that mirrors the economic recession we now face. Stresses from the pandemic of Covid-19 will likely linger well beyond the introduction of a vaccine, if the lessons from previous disasters like Hurricane Katrina hold true. A socially distant America risks falling apart when it opens back up.
A newly released survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveals Americans in the grip of a growing mental health crisis. More than 40 percent of 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.
America’s social recession stems from at least three stresses. The most obvious is health stress: the possibility or reality of catching Covid-19 and the medical problems it brings or exacerbates in oneself or one’s loved ones. Then there’s economic stress, which has impacted at least 70 percent of Americans. And, finally, there are the stresses of loneliness and social isolation in a time of physical distancing—made worse by absence from community and, especially, houses of worship. This social recession spares few, whether the health of the elderly or the mental well-being of young people.
These stresses began to test Americans at a time when they already appeared to be coming apart. Even before physical distancing became the social norm, family and faith were becoming less central parts of our national life, and we were less likely to socialize with neighbors and more likely to live alone. Other, darker trends were becoming clear then too: Suicide rates were up by 35 percent over the past two decades, with men four times as likely to kill themselves than women. Arguably, loneliness has been a mark of modernity since urbanization and industrialization, although it seems to have grown more acute in a digital age when it’s easier than ever to be alone together. However far back one wishes to trace them, these trends were all firmly in place long before drinking on Zoom.
And then came Covid-19. Although this pandemic has been a traumatic experience for many Americans, it has disproportionately impacted those fighting on the front lines. For instance, half of China’s doctors suffered depression during the virus’s peak in that country. The suicide of a top emergency room doctor in New York City, Dr. Lorna Breen, showed the deep emotional toll Covid-19 takes on medical professionals closer to home. Even surviving Covid-19 can be traumatic, acting as a precursor to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for some. And then there are those who have kept delivering food or stocking groceries throughout the pandemic; these individuals have suffered and died at higher rates than other Americans. “The pressure that people are under is phenomenal. It is traumatic,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “This is PTSD for an entire generation.”
The coronavirus pandemic could spark a longer-term mental health crisis. All of the stresses of Covid-19 — the financial cost, the physical toll, the isolation, even the Zoom fatigue — are compounded by the difficulties of coping with our burdens in normal ways, such as inviting neighbors over for dinner or exercising with friends. “Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now tinged with danger,” observed Ed Yong in The Atlantic.
Disasters often have a way of bringing communities together. 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. And while a hurricane may last for days or an earthquake for seconds, this pandemic may linger for well over a year, with successive waves of infection. Everyone in America is a potential victim of the social recession brought on by Covid-19.
But there is cause for hope. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, many survivors suffered from mental health and anxiety disorders for years, a syndrome known as “Katrina brain.” Low-income single moms appeared especially to suffer; many still struggled with anxiety and depression four years after the storm’s wake. The city’s murder rate also spiked, even though half of New Orleans had fled — an experience familiar to New Yorkers today. Nevertheless, the city’s deep-rooted community helped many cope and recover from the devastating hurricane. “Dense social networks in communities save people,” said Jacob Remes, an historian at N.Y.U. who studied Katrina’s impact on New Orleans. “That’s what makes communities resilient, and it’s what then helps communities recover.” Even when the members of a community are socially distant, the resources of a healthy community still redound to the health of the individual. A recent study by Sen. Mike Lee’s Social Capital Project found that the habits formed by being deeply embedded in community already show signs of curbing the spread of Covid-19.
There are other glimmers of hope. Consider how technology has tempered our state of isolation. Many Americans who are able to work remotely have replaced commuting time with family time. For others, working from home offers a respite from professional and social obligations, while remaining virtually connected to friends and family.
Of course, not all Americans are so lucky. And virtual community is hardly the real deal. That is why it is not altogether surprising to see New York City streets thronged with restaurant-goers enjoying the thousands of city eateries and bars embracing Parisian-style outdoor dining, or to see Central Park’s Sheep’s Meadow blanketed with picnic-goers on a summer afternoon. At their best, online communities act as complements to, not substitutes for, physical presence.
The longer Americans stay in lockdown, the greater the impact on American’s economic and social well-being. This is not to set up a false dichotomy between our medical health, on the one hand, and our economic and social health, on the other. Rather, it is to affirm that these are all inextricably linked. The fight to defeat Covid-19 must be an all-out campaign not only to suppress the disease but also to redress its attendant medical, economic, and social harms.
Unfortunately, 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. Still, there are bright spots—such as the mayor of Topeka, Kansas, Michelle De La Isla, who helped launch a service connecting volunteers with lonely residents. “People are hungry for that human touch,” she said. A private equity firm and a real estate company in New York City are organizing 1,400 volunteers to help neighbors in need in Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village. And there are countless more instances, most of which will go unheralded, of those with fewer resources connecting to or helping others with even less.
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.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to put away our masks and gather again without fear. Yet, long after that day comes, we will have to reckon not only with the economic consequences of this deadly virus, but also a social recession that in some ways may prove even more pernicious and damaging to our country. In the meantime, 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.
Michael Hendrix is director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.