March 16, 2020 11.13 am This story is over 18 months old

Barry Turner: Looking beyond infection – The psychological damage of coronavirus

Social interaction is just as important to our wellbeing

The plans to control coronavirus represent a major challenge in pluralistic democracies with rights of free expression and movement. Already some countries have introduced isolation enforced by the military and the police and closed communal meeting places and places of communication. In the UK there is a plan to advise those over 70 to self-isolate. In France and other parts of Europe, restaurants, theatres and bars are closed and isolation is in full swing.

While on the face of it these seem like eminently sensible precautions, it is surprising that little is being said about the negative consequences of this, not only on the people affected but on civil liberties generally. Any prolonged isolation will have severe psychological consequences on many people.

Very many elderly people already suffer from loneliness and isolation and it can have devastating, including fatal effects, on their health every bit as deadly as a viral pathogen. If social contacts are disrupted for any length of time, and this could be months, there will be severe consequences. Humans need to interact just as much as they need food, sleep and air to breath. Psychological health is every bit as important as physical and long term isolation will impact on that very deeply.

Bars and restaurants forced to close face the very real threat of bankruptcy and or loss of reputation and clientele. These will be very difficult to replace along with the many jobs that may be lost. The damage to communities this might cause may take very much longer than the COVID-19 outbreak to heal.

Pubs bars gyms, theatres and restaurants are not simply adjunct recreational facilities for idle play, they represent a part of cultural and human interaction. Any prolonged denial of access to them will have very negative social and personal effects. It should be kept in mind by those who invoke the Spirit of the Blitz that governments, even in times of all-out war, did not impose lock downs such as this.

It is not good enough for state intervention to stop at introducing isolation as a means of combatting the spread of this disease. The state will have the responsibility of ameliorating the negative effects that this intervention might cause. Old people cannot be left in isolation without support, facing fears exacerbated by loneliness. Small businesses cannot be left to pick up the cost of the loss of trade. People who lose their jobs cannot be left to face the economic consequences of that alone.

The writer has extensive experience of a phenomena known as the Worried Well. This understated psychological disorder, similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in its manifestation affects those with a fear of illness at times of high risk. It is seen in those exposed to asbestos and toxins and pathogens known to have long term risk to health. We are already seeing the fear of coronavirus in the populations with some more vulnerable to this fear than others.

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Barry Turner is Senior Lecturer in Media Law and Public Administration at the University of Lincoln.