Doctoral student Angélique Bernabé was on a Zoom call, doing a mock interview with university colleagues as part of her job search, when she broke down in tears. The other people on the call rushed to reassure her: She was doing well, she’d find a job. But the issue was more profound. She was lonely.
The Ryerson University economics student lives in downtown Toronto, in a dense neighbourhood of thousands, but pandemic restrictions mean she rarely leaves her condo. Although she makes a point of connecting with people for a virtual dinner every Tuesday, and schedules time to have a drink over Zoom regularly with a good friend in Quebec, living alone weighs on her.
The job-hunting process, which would normally be very social, with in-person interviews and campus visits, was being done entirely online. Ms. Bernabé was starved for human contact. But on that prep call when she started crying, she learned others were going through the same thing.
“It was actually a beautiful moment because everyone started sharing their feelings,” she said. “It became a good moment for everyone in the Zoom room at that time, to be able to connect and feel that we’re not alone feeling lonely.”
Isolation has been increasingly identified as a byproduct of COVID-19 restrictions, with potentially serious health effects. Recognizing this, some Canadian cities are moving to counter its effects with grants, outreach programs and virtual events.
“We need to address loneliness because it is a serious consequence of the pandemic response,” said Joe Cressy, a Toronto councillor and chair of the city’s board of health. “We have a duty to protect the health of our residents, both from COVID but also from the consequences of living through the pandemic.”
Surveys for the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health show loneliness increasing during the pandemic. And the impact on health can be striking. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social isolation increases the risk of premature death from all causes, “a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.”
Loneliness is not unique to cities but it can play out differently there than in rural or small-town settings. Residents of a metropolis are more likely not to have been born where they live, which can reduce family ties and mean less established social circles. Urban dwellers also tend to create their community in ways undermined by stay-home orders.
There are the fleeting public interactions – with a merchant or barista or panhandler – that could not be called friendships but help form a person’s social sphere. These brief exchanges can have profound effects, said Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
“There’s a concept from social psychology called the reflected self, which says that every time you’re interacting with somebody else you’re getting a sense of what they think about you, whether they think you’re honest, attractive, humorous, whatever,” he said.
“If you don’t see a reflection of yourself for a while … in the social sense, it’s kind of like, ‘Who am I?’ ”
Without these spontaneous interactions, Prof. Joordens urges people to be pro-active about making social contact and says a phone call allows for a more engaged conversation than chatting online. And he encourages active listening, really paying attention to what people have to say instead of occupying your mind with how you’ll respond.
Also affecting urban loneliness is the current reduction in crowds. Some people draw a sense of community by simple proximity, even with people they don’t know. There’s a feeling of being alone together.
One of the reasons Ms. Bernabé chose to live downtown was the street life, thrusting her into the jostle of urbanity every time she walked out the door. But now she gets most things delivered. And the streets have been near deserted when she goes to get food. The chance encounters have vanished.
“It’s not the same downtown it used to be,” she said. “That also didn’t help the loneliness feeling, because I really don’t even see humans walking in the street.”
While cities can’t recreate that feeling amid lockdown, some are recognizing the dangerous effects of loneliness and have funded programs or efforts to counter it. These are often aimed at seniors or especially vulnerable groups but in other cases can be accessed by anyone.
“The longer the pandemic goes the harder it’s getting for people, and we’re at a critical point right now where [what] they call compassion fatigue sets in,” said Mary Clare Zak, managing director of social policy for the City of Vancouver. “And so I think this is a really critical junction for us to be looking out for one another.”
In Vancouver that takes the form of outreach to seniors, particularly those who are Indigenous or Black. It includes an emphasis on providing outdoor space where people can meet up in a safely distanced setting. There is also funding for dozens of neighbourhood social services, with reducing isolation one of the goals. Among the examples are efforts to communicate with residents in their own language to help them understand what support is available.
Ms. Zak also said that as COVID-19 recedes, it may be worth reviving the city’s “Hey Neighbour” program. This pilot project, which wrapped up before the pandemic, encouraged people to build social networks and involved small grants to residential buildings to facilitate gatherings.
Toronto has focused its efforts in some of the same ways. The board of health’s Mr. Cressy said that the city has created safe outdoor spaces such as winter walking paths and made events and activities virtual so that residents could participate from home.
“During this pandemic we need to forge community in other ways,” he said. “It’s not enough to simply wait for this pandemic to end and hope that the consequences and trauma aren’t too severe. We need to do everything in our power to mitigate it.”
The number of people responding to some of the city efforts has been startling. A partnership that connects residents with mental-health supports such as the Ontario Psychological Association has been accessed more than 116,000 times since March. “We’ve never seen numbers anywhere close to that,” Mr. Cressy said.
A program that involves library staff phoning seniors to see how they’re doing, connect them with city supports and encourage reading made contact last year with about 10,000 people over 80. It is expanding this year to people in their 70s and aims to make 25,000 calls.
“It’s such a simple thing … and people are so incredibly grateful,” said Vickery Bowles, Toronto’s chief librarian. “We will get e-mails from family members saying ‘Thank you so much for calling my mother, because she told me about it and how happy it made her.’ ”
Whether among seniors or the general population, one thing different during the pandemic is that loneliness has lost its pejorative taint and become widely acknowledged. Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist based at York University, said that in 40 years of practice before the pandemic he had only one patient admit to having come in because of loneliness.
“Up to COVID it was really stigmatized to say out loud ‘I’m lonely.’ Now everyone complains about being lonely,“ he said. “One of the things [COVID-19] did was it made the lonely part of the majority.”
Dr. Rokach wonders, though, if some of the people now voicing loneliness are discounting the new ways of connecting that have emerged during the pandemic, pointing to the value of social gatherings in driveways, neighbours reaching out to check in on neighbours and strangers saying hello in the street.
“Like everybody else, I miss shaking hands and I miss seeing people and I miss hugging,” he said. “But that doesn’t necessarily make me, personally, lonely. It just says that I miss some things.”
To an outside observer, Winnipeg resident Kiernan Gange might be assumed to be lonely. The data scientist’s girlfriend works in Europe, he lives alone and does his job from home, having minimal contact with colleagues.
He acknowledges that when he has too much time on his hands he can end up in a dark place, reliving and stewing over past situations. But even though there are certainly days he feels the solitude, he does not believe he is lonely.
It helps that he was able to see friends outside occasionally in what had been a somewhat mild winter. He also keeps as active as possible. And he focuses on the positives of his situation. He takes it as evidence of his good fortune that there are people in his life he cherishes enough to miss, activities he cares about that he can look forward to doing again.
“My attitude toward if I feel lonely or not, it’s like standing at the edge of a cliff,” Mr. Gange said. “If you allow yourself to think and to wallow in it and to really dive deep into like ‘Oh man, it really sucks right now,’ then it’s just like, that’s a really deep dark pit that you’re not going to get out of.”