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

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

Curtisha Bell and her aunt Vicky Blake show progress of their festive surgical masks to friends and family on video chat.
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 — bringing groceries to the ill and elderly, calling to check on vulnerable neighbors, and sharing local updates on everything from grocery store hours to the availability of toilet paper.

The pandemic is inspiring creativity online as artists dance and sing together through videos from home. Families celebrate birthdays through FaceTime. Audiences enjoy live opera performances streamed over the internet, and students, from kindergartners to doctoral candidates, meet in classes online. As we learn to play, work, and collaborate virtually, we are helping each other fend off loneliness and reminding each other just how vital connection is to our mutual resiliency.

By strengthening our social connections, we can fortify our communities and protect each other. Four key strategies will help us not only to weather this crisis, but also to heal our social world for the future:

Spend time each day with those you love

This is not limited to the people in your immediate household. Reach out also to the other members of your lifeline via phone or, better yet, videoconference, so you can hear their voices and see their faces, even if it’s just briefly. Devote at least 15 minutes each day to connecting with those you most care about.

Focus on each other

Try to eliminate distractions when interacting with others. Forget about multitasking and give the other person the gift of your full attention, making eye contact and genuinely listening.

Embrace solitude

The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Solitude helps us do that by allowing us to check in with our own feelings and thoughts, to explore our creativity, to connect with nature. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent outdoors can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy.

Help and be helped

Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Giving and receiving, both, strengthen our social bonds — this reciprocity is what builds relationships. Checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, and asking for help, all can make us stronger.

I once had a physician mentor who would pause and take a deep breath before he entered a patient’s room, using those few seconds to remind himself how grateful he was for the chance to help someone heal.

Today, we all share this opportunity. Healthy relationships are as essential as vaccines and ventilators for our global recovery.

This pandemic isn’t the first and won’t be the last time our social connections are tested, but it is rare for the whole world to face such a grave challenge simultaneously. For all our differences, our shared experience is itself a bond. We will have this memory in common for the rest of our lives.

If we learn from this moment to be better together, we won’t just endure this crisis. We will thrive.

From the book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy, M.D. Copyright © 2020 by Vivek H. Murthy, M.D. Reprinted by permission of Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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

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