Beware the “loneliness gap”? Examining emerging inequalities and long-term risks of loneliness and isolation emerging from COVID-19
Australian Journal of Social Issues
Emerging evidence suggests COVID lockdowns have not only increased the social problem of loneliness but widened the ‘loneliness gap’ between the most and least lonely people. Qualitative investigation can reveal why this gap might have increased, for whom, and whether the loneliness gap will remain long term. Using multi-wave qualitative survey data conducted during Australia’s 2020 lockdown period and beyond, we examine personal experiences of interaction transitioning out of lockdown. We find substantial and uneven impacts of COVID lasting well beyond lockdown. Participants reported heightened loneliness attributable to: physical isolation, health anxieties, ceased activities, reduced connection quality, and poor motivation. COVID also created new interactive difficulties for singles, those with physical and mental disabilities, their carers, and those with low social capital. There was also reported ‘pruning’ of social networks (i.e. reduced bridging, increased bonding social capital), and evidence that increased digital interaction did not substitute for lost physical contact. Younger people also experienced isolating COVID-induced life disruptions (e.g. travel, university attendance etc). Findings suggest COVID has increased potential long-term inequalities in loneliness, highlight the post COVID risks faced by vulnerable groups, and suggest caution in advocating digital solutions as a panacea for diminished physical interaction in the post-pandemic world.