Ministry for combating loneliness

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Last week, the United Kingdom set up a ministry for loneliness, meant to devise policies that would tackle a phenomenon that is increasingly seen in modern societies. Thus, we are talking about an attempt to heal one of the most widespread social ailments among the elderly and not only them, namely isolation/loneliness. The remedy is not to be found in drugs already in pharmacies or still in research laboratories, nor in the elderly people’s frequent visits to the physician in order to find the cure for depressions that have a massive occurrence in modern societies. According to the British press, the new ministry is meant to take over and develop what Ms Jo Cox, a British lawmaker killed by a psychopath in 2016, would have taken over and developed as chairwoman of a parliamentary committee set up with the purpose of identifying policies for combating “loneliness” and “isolation” in British society. This new ministry will be taken over by Sports Minister Tracey Crouch, in order to devise and implement a national strategy in this dossier. The main targets of this strategy will be to minimise or annihilate the effects of the problems linked, among other things, not only to “loneliness” but also to dementia, premature mortality or the massive social havoc caused by high blood pressure. On this occasion, Premier Theresa May stated: “We should all do everything we can to see that, in Jo’s memory, we bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good,” because “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.” Hence, a world first in the UK, a ministry for loneliness!

This event has multiple meanings. We are not talking solely about the fact that the third age growing longer – an indicator of a society’s progress, but also a result of the technological breakthroughs in the medical field – has caused complex problems which modern societies have to tackle to survive and advance in the global development race. Population ageing in developed societies, thus incapable to withstand both the pressures of the future and also the assault of threats that are not just economic in nature – the lag in human development, demographic slump, generational gap, etc – but also existential – the assault of southern migration toward the pole of global wealth in the northern hemisphere, accompanied by a veritable programme of violent conquest through disintegrating or ideological terrorism meant to change the traditional foundations of various societies.

This only sketches a potential range of interpretation of this unprecedented event: to include in the macrosocial management of one of the societies of the developed world the management of societal “loneliness,” identified as one of the threats to it. According to the arguments brought in favour of this decision, “The majority of people over 75 live alone and about 200,000 older people in the UK have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, according to government data.” It is estimated that one in five people in the UK are affected by this phenomenon; in other words, five million persons. Add to them those who actually care, on a daily basis, for those who suffer from loneliness (basically approximately 9 million in the UK) and we get the exact dimension of an ailing part of society, a large disadvantaged social segment.

The size of the phenomenon requires macromanagement solutions, having unsuspected multiple facets. Britain’s new minister for loneliness has pointed out that this ailment does not afflict only the elderly: approximately 85 percent of young people with disabilities feel lonely, just like 80 percent of the people close to them, who feel isolated and lonely due to the fact that they have to care for their loved ones. A quarter of the parents feel lonely, abandoned by their children. Emerging is not only a significant generational gulf, never before seen in history, but also an intra-societal tension with unsuspected effects on the stability of the community. From electoral orientations in democratic societies to the projection of unexpected results in decisive consultations – as some experts believe happened during the Brexit referendum –, the social syndrome of loneliness is becoming ever more concerning. Do elderly generations understand the challenges of the future when they go to the polls? British physicians reveal that one in five patients they see every day show up just because they feel lonely – hence the cost of loneliness would amount, to a great extent, to a significant budgetary burden for healthcare. Add to this simple and apparently insignificant calculus the fact that the rest of the population – relatives, neighbours, the political system – have to deal with the hidden or visible costs of this phenomenon, and we obtain the image of the extraordinary burden at societal level.

Public opinion comments on this management decision adopted by the Conservative government – not few are those who joke about the UK’s “loneliness” and isolation in the international system after Brexit, which is untreatable by local ministries – match its apparent unusual nature. From recognising it as a justified measure – “Great to see this leadership. Appointing a minister might not sound like much, but in tackling a complex crisis like loneliness that cuts across departments it will provide much needed leadership& accountability.” – to proposing concrete actions – “Step one has to be stopping Local Authorities from closing our libraries – a vital lifeline for so many & an info source for people of all ages. Forced Library closures are happening nationwide & this is killing community support for many lonely people.” From downplaying it – “Minister for loneliness, that’s a bad start.Minister against loneliness? What about a minister for e.g happiness, fairness, understanding, mindfulness” – and being sceptical (“As Montaigne said about 400 years ago it’s better to be alone than with annoying people. Most people are annoying. Life is jigsaw puzzle and the bits do not fit seamlessly together. Mostly the bits that fit, do not fit together permanently ( eg marriage) so we spend our time trying to squeeze the bits together which doesn’t work. Not so far anyway.”), to emphasising each person’s social duty – “When is the last time you knocked on your neighbour’s door? Tackling loneliness is everyone’s duty.” And from invoking charity and the observance of moral and legal obligations – “How to help lonely elderly people… and lonely younger people” as they are listed in the relevant instructions of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) – to looking at it from the standpoint of neoliberalism, in reference to the tribute to be paid for progress: “The nanny/welfare state has largely replaced the need for traditional interdependence and mutual support of family members which led to their cohesion. Isolation +loneliness is natural progression.”

Loneliness is only the first of the serious ailments of the present, characterised by the acceleration of the rhythm of evolution in the most various fields of social life, and which we are all responsible for. What’s next?