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An epidemic of loneliness in a pandemic - what can we learn from the time spent in solitude in lockdown?

As we begin step out into the world again, can we learn from the time we spent in solitude to make us stronger, kinder and reach out more to those who need us, writes Suzanne Harrington

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Most of us have experienced loneliness in some way during lockdown, but is there something we can learn from it? Stock image

Most of us have experienced loneliness in some way during lockdown, but is there something we can learn from it? Stock image

Lockdown measures due to coronavirus have lead to a rise in people feeling lonely

Lockdown measures due to coronavirus have lead to a rise in people feeling lonely

Getty Images/fStop

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Most of us have experienced loneliness in some way during lockdown, but is there something we can learn from it? Stock image

'In 1951, friendless and isolated at college, Sylvia Plath described her loneliness as a "contagion", "like a disease of the blood". Almost 70 years on, a different type of contagion has for months separated us all from each other; as restrictions slowly lift and we tentatively begin to re-engage, we have had to confront our own sense of loneliness in lockdown. Even the most robustly self-contained have been feeling it.

While under less extraordinary circumstances we often crave and seek solitude to restore our equilibrium, few of us like to admit to its shameful shadow, loneliness. Yet the pandemic has made many of us feel lonely. Can we learn from the experience? Could this moment of universal lockdown-induced loneliness be useful longer term, if it awakens in us empathy for and awareness of those who suffer from the more chronic kind? The kind that has been killing people prematurely long before Covid? And meanwhile, is it possible to convert negative feelings of loneliness into a positive state of solitude?

Unlike solitude, loneliness is a relatively modern idea, an emotion rather than a factual state of being. Its impact on our health, both physical and mental, is alarming - chronically lonely people are, says the UK's National Health Service, 30pc more likely to die prematurely than the non-lonely. Pre pandemic, loneliness had already been deemed "an epidemic", by the US Surgeon in 2017, and "the leprosy of the 21st century" by The Economist in 2018, the same year Britain appointed a Minister for Loneliness. It is not what we want to be, yet millions of us are.