Human Social Malnourishment – aka COVID Isolation Syndrome

It’s time for me to speak up even though it’s a risk. Concisely, this needs saying:

– Under extended lockdowns vital human needs are being denied

– Minimising social contact has real and serious consequences that need to be considered against other health risks

– If you are suffering from this “malnourishment” right now that’s valid 

– What people could tolerate for a brief period becomes a cruelty when extended

– To deny our humanity to stay alive, is not truly to live

Put bluntly, I have come to believe that the extended lockdown in place in the UK, most of mainland Europe and in many US states, is extremely detrimental to people’s well-being, and is now a human rights violation.

Over the last few months I’ve seen my friends and colleagues look worse and worse each time I speak to them online. Frankly, people across many countries are going downhill, and suffering the consequences of significant human needs not being met. I’ve seen people’s well-being plummet, and am now concerned it’s gotten to dangerous levels. People have gone from “hungry” to “starving.” The needs for contact that are being denied are not “nice to haves” but rather the fundamentals of human flourishing.

The first thing I want to say, and I’ve seen many brought to tears recently just by hearing this as few seem to be saying it, is that it’s valid if you’re having a really hard time with distancing right now. It’s OK if you’re not OK. If you’ve become anxious or depressed, are struggling mentally and emotionally, or your skin is crawling for a hug, you are normal. Your needs matter and I recognise them. 

Human rights – not “human maybes” or “human when convenients” aside (and that’s a huge aside!),  there’s a very obvious health consequence to what’s being done. Only those with an archaic, non-holistic, view of health, would view the current social distancing as anything less than a recipe for disaster. Social contact, touch, community – these things are CENTRAL to our well-being as pack animals. We co-regulate, meaning we keep calm, well and sane, only TOGETHER. Solitary confinement, while an extreme example, is now universally viewed as torture for this reason. Though most people are not fully solitary now, they are confined and cut off from their social support in most cases. And no, Facebook etc., while better than nothing, doesn’t cut it. 

Of course people’s immune systems are terrible when they can’t hug their friends and families! Of course people’s health dramatically suffers when they can not do meaningful work (without even getting into health economics! A broke population isn’t well!) OF COURSE a life without dancing together, eating together and making love isn’t good for us! We are human animals of touch, belonging and connection! These things are CORE to our health and well-being and I’m tired of seeing people suffer. 

I’ve started seeing a diverse but recognisable set of “symptoms” that could be called “COVID Isolation Syndrome,” aren’t you? Perhaps giving the negative impacts of human social “malnourishment” a pseudo-medical name will slap people into taking it seriously. Some people I meet seem a shadow of their former selves, others just much more tired and irritable, others really hitting some hard mental health walls. Almost nobody I talk to in these environments, even extreme introverts who may enjoy it on one level, look well. Aren’t you seeing this too???!! 

I think we were all prepared to sacrifice for a (perceived) greater good. And there’s a point where the cure is worse than the illness. Do I know where that point is exactly or how to balance all these factors? No, but I know there is one and worry we may have passed it. Governments need to balance concern for viral infection and the health of an important minority of vulnerable people, with the health of everyone decaying with distancing. Of course both aspects are important, and BOTH considerations need to be on the table. Weighing them is not an easy job I acknowledge, especially when leaders have their own attachment, class, and trauma issues as in the UK. 

If you really think there’s nothing in what I’m saying consider this: what if the lockdown lasted ten years? Would you be able to cope with that? Would you be OK with that from a human rights point of view? I think most people would not, so we’re really only discussing timing. My point is the damage and risks of extended lockdowns, may not be obvious to those making decisions (or may be the point if you want to go there), and need to be at least WEIGHED against other risks. 

These things are hard to measure of course, and not politically expedient perhaps to even try, and emotive arguments about people’s grandmothers tend to win out. Also, to be crystal twice clear, I don’t have an opinion on virology as I’m not qualified, but I do know about psychology and social well-being, and demand that this to be taken into account. 

I have taught resilience in 30 countries, in war zones to soldiers and aid workers, in high pressure businesses, to the LBGTQ+ community in Russia, to street kids and single mums, and across the NHS extensively. I’ve always told people that while exercising, diet and meditation could be great, the MOST important single resilience factor is social support (which itself can be sub-divided into various “food groups” – friendship, empathy, humour, play, touch, sex, etc.) We are inter-resilient, plain and simple. Some of these needs can be partially met online but not properly, it’s like living off a survival diet of only rice and expecting to be well in a year. People will not stay well on a virtual diet!

I want to keep underlining the importance of social connections as they are so vital and I don’t know why people aren’t screaming this (extremely well scientifically validated and common sense) view right now. Most simply – we need each other. 

I’m left wondering why many seem to have largely forgotten a holistic view of psycho-social health that we’ve made great progress in my life-time. Remember the bad old days when people didn’t talk about attachment, empathy, touch and trauma when discussing well-being? Why have we returned there? I know some people have been bullied and emotionally blackmailed into remaining silent. I feel this pressure myself and consulted the whole team at Embodiment Unlimited before publishing this as I didn’t want to get my staff into trouble by association if I crossed a line. Kind of weird when I’m saying something so obvious that it’s literally the basis of love and care globally. Can you imagine an intimate relationship without the things I’m talking about? No, of course not, it’s what makes us close and this is precious. Can you imagine parenting or child-rearing without it? That’d be the tragic case of the Romanian orphans if you want the worst scenario. Let’s not do that to ourselves eh. 

Lastly, I would argue that to do these things such as eating, and sports, and weddings, and dancing, TOGETHER is what it means to be human fundamentally. And yes, perhaps funerals too. This is not a set of optional extras for any government to remove, or for us to give up, they are at the very HEART of being alive. To be alive doesn’t just mean to survive, it means to LIVE. Yes perhaps we have to sacrifice and of course we should be prudent (I take some precautions myself for the record), but to live as social full humans should not be on the chopping block. To be social, is to be human. 

I feel so grateful to be able to dance, workout, eat tacos on the street, go to yoga, have coffee with friends, visit art galleries, etc. here in Mexico. I am deeply grateful to simply be living. I beg you not to forget what that was like, or accept less long-term. Perhaps a vaccine will end this debate, but perhaps not, and I dread distancing becoming “the new normal.” Even before the pandemic there was a trend of distanced shopping, dating, working etc. that was profoundly unhelpful, and if you have ever been to places with real embodied community, you will realise how malnourished we were for connection already in the Global North. 

If you are deeply suffering right now you are not crazy, you are human. And if you ARE crazy right now… you are not crazy to have gone crazy, you are human. LIFE IS MORE THAN FUCKING ZOOM CALLS. (And that’s from someone who led the largest Zoom event in history.) I am grateful for what the technology we have allows, but life can NOT be lived via WiFi. Life is lived in hugs, and kisses, and yes… RISK. It is a risk of course as well as a privilege, to do what I’m doing and live in a country with less restrictions, but it’s a greater risk to tolerate a less than human, house-arrest, virtual existence. This is not life, anymore than porn is sex. You are human if you now feel starving, and don’t let anyone tell you your longings and sufferings are not real. 

Everyday from my position of luck and luxury abroad in a saner more human place, I see what’s happening in countries with lockdown and it has become intolerable for me to say nothing. Perhaps I see it a bit clearer by contrast from afar, and the fact that my friends seem SHOCKED how well I look when we talk says a lot. The fact that they all tell me not to come home, speaks volumes too. They see me smiling online and remember what a flourishing human being looks like. I am not exceptional, I am just the old normal. Please do not forget it.

I feel deeply concerned that what started as a one month “flatten the curve” sacrifice is becoming a new way of non-life. Like boiled frogs it’s easy for people to not miss rights as they are taken away one by one, and their own well-being slowly atrophying. My wife is Ukrainian and we make jokes about “mandatory government hotels” in the USSR, curfews for adults, and not being allowed to leave communist countries in the 80s. It’s starting to not seem funny now. I ask older people in Russia and Ukraine what it was like to not be able to speak the truth about obvious matters, or to have to get a permit to visit another state, or when the government became involved in many health matters (always pushing a greater good). While we are not in the USSR and let’s not get too paranoid just yet, it’s a warning worth hearing. 

Whatever you believe about the ethics of “greater good” utilitarian thinking, I call on those who understand bio-psycho-social health such as in the embodiment community to stand up and be counted on in this matter. To insist on the importance of vital human needs doesn’t make you a tin-hat wearing “conspiracy theorist,” it makes you humane. It makes you wise. And sadly yes, it does today make you brave. Those of us who understand co-regulation, human flourishing, attachment, trauma, and a fuller view of health than medical companies and health ministers may, must add our voices to the discussion. Our wisdom here is needed like never before in fact. SPEAK UP. 

You know what’s happening has consequences because you feel it, and you see it. My request is simply to speak truthfully about it. This matters. I wish you well whatever country and conditions you are in… but wishes don’t make people well, people do.

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