To be healthy, we need to make sure we are as connected as possible. Loneliness knocks years off our lives and is apparently more damaging to our health and immune function than smoking. Humanity depends on connection for its very survival and yet our governments, under pressure from profit making entities such as corporations, seem determined to undermine connection in every aspect of our lives. How much connection do we truly get from online interactions with other human beings? Sure, it’s better than nothing, and not every human being needs the same level or quality of social interaction to flourish, but we all need person to person connection to some degree or other. Whether you’re a socially anxious introvert or a gregarious social butterfly, meaningful connection with at least one other human being is necessary for health and happiness.
The trend towards atomisation and individualism is nothing new. We have seen moves towards increasing separation over successive decades, or even centuries, with an abrupt acceleration in the last ten years or so, as technology has at least facilitated if not driven the undermining of face-to-face interaction. Perhaps this is why we have also seen trends towards ideas and thus ideologies replacing concrete reality as the common experience that binds humans together, regardless of age, sex, race, or background. As we become increasingly untethered to reality, able instead to immerse ourselves in fantasy creations of our own or others’ imaginings as if we can think ourselves into existence, our collective psyche becomes ever more vulnerable to fracture. Our species has been on a path towards self-destruction in the form of disconnection from nature and denial of material reality for some time. The response to our current challenge, that of a not quite but nearly novel virus, is thus understandable within this context.
Along with this trend towards disconnection with the material world from which we all spring and cannot deny in any long-term, meaningful way – after all, we inhabit bodies that need feeding, rest, warmth, and human touch – has come a significant increase in aversion to risk, a desire for safety above all other considerations including privacy and freedom, and an excessive need to control and police others’ language, behaviour and ultimately thoughts. This is truly a dystopian vision of humanity and one which the likes of Orwell, CS Lewis and countless other thinkers of the 20th Century warned us about. We have history as a handy aide memoire to what happens when people give over their freedoms in return for a sense of safety, usually in the guise of the state, voiced by a well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) human promising the undeliverable – a life free from risk and thus death.
Humans are not gods and, in this case, the vain attempt to thwart mortality by one cause, further misery and mortality is caused by a myriad consequence of the original action. Or life becomes unliveable for all but the privileged few. Or more likely, as is the situation now, both. The cure was always worse than the malady. In the beginning, we had an excuse of sorts for overreaction. But this time around, with the benefit of knowledge and experience of two previous lockdowns that did not ‘contain’ the virus but did instead result in deaths associated with its stringency and takeover of the health system, along with devastation to businesses and thus lives, and the education and prospects of millions, we have no such excuse.
A caged and frightened population is one easily manipulated to turn a blind eye to or even to orchestrate atrocities against fellow human beings. We are already seeing its beginnings in the arena of anger and divisiveness of social media. The new ‘public square’ is reverberating to the sounds of curses and insults as people struggle to assert their moral superiority over others they do not even want to understand. There is nothing so tempting as shutting off all empathy for the person who dares to question an orthodoxy one has accepted wholesale. How dare they? What kind of a person are they? Why, they must be a monster. And soon comes the cry, of ‘Burn the witch!’
If we are to get through this dark time, as in all dark times, we must find ways to connect with each other. This is the only way to build any kind of resilience. Resilient communities are needed to avert this sprint towards a future of misery for ourselves and our children, where walks in the countryside without a permit, travel overseas without a ‘health’ passport, quality learning without censorship, the chance to breathe the very air unimpeded without glares of opprobrium from the new class of the masked and pious, and the opportunity to sing and dance in a crowd of joyful fellow humans, is not consigned to the history books forever.
People have compared this situation to the Second World War – how weak and soft-bellied we must be to compare the suffering from enforced separation from our loved ones to the threat of death from a stray bomb in the Blitz. I have some sympathy for this view, and indeed in our cosy, internet-connected, well-fed home environments, we are a world away from the acute threat of death from an exploding doodlebug. But this is still missing an important point. Many people who lived through it looked back with fondness at a time which fostered greater community spirit and connection than they had experienced before. It was this togetherness, the ability to congregate, to work together, to dance and sing, to make the most of the meagre rations and home-grown produce that could be acquired, that brought our nation through and out the other side of a truly horrific experience more compassionate than they went in. And thus, the first Labour government was elected, the welfare state and the NHS were created.
What this should tell us is that we need more than just calories. Arguably, we need each other, to reach out and touch each other, far more than we need to consume takeaways and designer chocolates. And that’s if we are lucky enough to have a cosy place to live and more food than we need. This comparison to past generations’ suffering is lazy at best and reeks of middle-class privilege at worst. That this blunt tool of universal lockdown is being used in countries such as India, where people live in one room, ordinarily hand to mouth, with the effects of extreme poverty and the ever-present spectre of starvation, and that people are okay with this because of the ‘lockdowns = good pandemic management’ argument is very telling about how far we have come from the people who voted for a welfare state.
We may be weak and soft-bellied after months of over-consumption and sedentary screen staring, but the way to engender strength is to come together. That we are being forcibly separated in order ‘stop the spread’ of a virus, while laudable in some narrow way, is also counterproductive. Our immune systems need contact to function properly. We need connection to be healthy in all other ways and there is even a serious scientific case to be made for regular human contact to build more robust immune responses in both the individual and in the community. This contact ultimately does more to protect our most vulnerable than a mere vaccine. I say this response was wrong-headed from the start, given what we already knew about the virus in the weeks prior to the first lockdown. That China, locking up its citizens and posting fake videos of people dropping down dead in the streets, was used as a paragon of pandemic management is laughable. Sadly, we are the butt of the joke.
Alone and afraid, we are at our most vulnerable from everything. We must find ways to build meaningful connection once more, even when all other powers seem to be pulling us away from each other. We should wonder at the scale of the investment in such a message – that we need to see less of each other. That human connection is a disposable frippery. A luxury.
It is a right. And it is essential for our survival. Human connection is not dispensable.