Obama’s Surgeon General Says Coronavirus Could Cure the Loneliness Epidemic

Healthy relationships are as essential as vaccines and ventilators for our global recovery

Dr. Vivek Murthy
Forge
Published in
4 min readMay 26, 2020

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Curtisha Bell and her aunt Vicky Blake show progress of their festive surgical masks to friends and family on video chat.
Photo: Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

You may have heard of America’s “loneliness epidemic.” I’m the doctor responsible for coining that phrase.

After observing isolation as a rising public health calamity during my term as the Surgeon General of the United States, appointed by President Barack Obama, I wrote a book about the importance of human connection, the hidden impact of loneliness on our health, and the social power of community. What I could not anticipate, however, was the unprecedented test that our global community would face, just as this book was going to press.

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned physical human contact into a potentially mortal threat. Parents like my wife, Alice, and I have canceled our children’s playdates; nursing homes have banned visits to the elderly, who are among those most at risk from this virus; and engaged couples have postponed long-planned wedding celebrations. So much of the socializing that we all took for granted is on hold: concerts, ball games, movies, meals with friends, office banter, and congregational worship.

It seemed at first that this crisis must inevitably lead to social as well as physical isolation. If we could not meet, how could we connect? If we could not share the same space, how could we help each other? If we could not touch, how could we love? Even that term, social distancing, seemed to condemn us to loneliness.

As the pandemic continues, however, it becomes ever clearer that social distancing is a misnomer. To be sure, we must practice physical distancing to stop the spread of Covid-19, but socially, we may emerge from this crisis feeling closer to friends and family members than ever before.

Each day brings new examples of our communal ingenuity as we meet this crisis together. In Italy, one of the hardest hit countries, neighbors isolated in their homes found shared comfort by singing from their windows. In China, patients in quarantine units have turned to square dancing to lift their spirits. And all over the world, families, friends, and strangers have been performing acts of generosity —…

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Dr. Vivek Murthy
Forge
Writer for

19th Surgeon General of the United States. Dad, Husband, Author of TOGETHER: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World