Reflections on a pandemic within a pandemic

August 29, 2021 | 06:11 pm PT
Huynh Thi Ngoc Han Migration consultant
Less than the fingers on one hand - that's how many friends I have met face to face in the whole of last year.

I will not be overdoing it if I say that there were times when I felt distant from humanity itself, despite online meetings with partners and customers.

An outgoing person by nature, I have never imagined that I would experience such loneliness one day.

Australia, where I live, has closed its borders since early 2020 and the repeated lockdowns have made matters worse. More and more of my friends have been telling me they are feeling suffocated by loneliness.

Those living alone feel lonely because there is no one by their side, while those living with their families feel lonely because there is no sharing of feelings, and family members are even in conflict with each other.

My friend in the U.K. has just received a doctor's prescription to "take two weeks off work" in order to recover mentally. I wonder if she will really be allowed to "take time off" from housework considering that she has two children studying online and a husband who only does his own work.

Of course, there are also people that feel completely fine in the periods of social distancing, but that number seems to be the minority in many countries. A survey by global market research firm Ipsos covering 23,000 respondents in 28 countries early this year found approximately 30 percent of the adults felt lonely during the pandemic-induced isolation.

Many impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have been visible and direct, but the loneliness pandemic is probably no less dangerous as it silently creeps into our lives.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the Brigham Young University, has compiled the results of many specialized studies to show that the harmful effect of loneliness on human health is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It has harmful side-effects similar to excessive alcohol consumption – obesity, cardiovascular and neurological diseases, increased risk of death and could reduce life expectancy of up to 15 years if left untreated.

Psychologists usually divide loneliness into two types: "social loneliness" is when a person feels lonely due to a lack of connection with the community; while "emotional loneliness" is due to a lack of deep relationships. A person could experience one or both of these at the same time.

Loneliness is considered a common illness among urban dwellers, as the bigger the city and the more developed the country, the easier it is for people to feel lost. In my childhood growing up in the countryside, along the road from home to school, I knew everyone in every house, I knew almost everyone in the market, and wherever we children were out, people could tell which one was from which family. When I moved to Saigon, everyone stuck to their houses with layers of locked doors, so I didn't know many people.

Luckily I still had many friends from university, all of whom were young and single, so we could meet up whenever needed. It was only after moving to Australia that I truly tasted loneliness. My neighborhood has eight houses but I only know the names of the two next door neighbors, whom I occasionally see and exchange greetings across the fence but otherwise have no interaction with.

These days, Vietnam's top priority is to stamp out the Covid pandemic, but each of us is perhaps fighting our own battle within the larger war.

A police officer guards a locked down area in Hanoi, July 18, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

A police officer guards a locked down area in Hanoi, July 18, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Losses, hardship and loneliness, when confined within four walls, leave mental wounds that take time and effort, mostly one's own, to heal. The pace and effectiveness of recovery depends on the level of injury and mental resilience of each person.

The U.K. has been a pioneer in this area, appointing an official Minister for Loneliness in its government apparatus in 2018. Earlier this year, Japan followed by appointing its own Minister of Loneliness in response to an alarming number of suicides, which has topped 20,000 cases per year in recent years.

While other countries may not have a similar designated official, social workers and many organizations are actively working to solve this problem in their communities. I really hope that Vietnam also sets up a specialized agency under the government and formulates a long-term strategy to look after the mental health of the people, especially those who have had to confront the impermanence of life in unexpected fashion in these pandemic times.

But is loneliness really so scary?

After over a year of psychotherapy, I can share from my personal experience that, despite being labeled "negative," there is nothing inherently bad about the feeling of loneliness. There is no shame in admitting loneliness, for it is only after recognizing and putting a name to our true feelings can we begin our journey to healing.

With guidance, I gradually built up my emotional support system, which was made up of people who make me feel secure, feel listened to, and those that I could feel a genuine connection with. Just thinking about them makes me feel warm inside.

So it is not for me to hand out cliched advice about the need to remain positive when surrounded by the atmosphere of a pandemic, the sounds of ambulance sirens, of crying children asking to go out, and not to mention images constantly flashing on your computer screen. We cannot turn a blind eye when people we know have lost their loved ones, and many people around us could be starving. We would lose our humanity if we were to remain insensitive to the pain of others and ourselves.

But we cannot treat loneliness and its potential consequences lightly.

The good news, of course, is that it is not an incurable disease. All of us have the ability to recover from it and to help others overcome it. We need to remember that simple actions go a long way. Just being by someone's side to listen and talk to them, texting or calling to check up on relatives and friends, meeting up and helping people when needed are actions that have great value.

If you care about someone, let them know. If you need someone to lend you a shoulder, don't hesitate to ask.

Another effective solution is to change one's attitude to life. We have never been "locked up" in our own houses for this long. Normally, we complain about being too busy and not having time to do nothing but relax. So, now can be that golden time. Is there something you have always wanted to do but life has never allowed? This pandemic can also be seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for re-evaluating the values and goals of one's life.

Part of the re-evaluation can be a reconsideration of what we can give to our loved ones at home. Often, it happens that reserve all our talents and best behaviors for outside the house for work and drop our guard on returning home. It would be a pity if we give our loved ones less than what we give the outside world.

Staying at home for a long period of time can also be a liberation from material life. If we pay attention, the realization dawns that we don’t have as many needs as we previously thought.

If humans only ate one meal a day, they can still have enough nutrition and energy for a healthy life, according to studies on minimalist lifestyles and "intermittent fasting" by Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

It pays to remember, then, that regardless of whether we have a one-room apartment or a 10-room mansion, we can only sleep on one bed. At any given moment, we can only wear one set of clothes, even if we have a full wardrobe.

So this isolation can be a time when we seriously consider questions like: Do we need to strive so hard to become like someone else or do we just need to be the best version of ourselves? What would make us really happy? It can drive home the answer that when we are confident and feel fulfilled with our inner values, we would be less concerned ostentatious, frivolous things. Out there, there are still too many people surviving pay check to pay check, so if we have a house to stay in, with food, warm blankets and soft mattresses, we are already luckier than most people.

It feels good to see that in Vietnam, there are more and more groups providing psychological support and counseling for people that are struggling mentally, experiencing loss or frustration, as also promoting positivity and healthy lifestyles.

And if the country goes further and finds it worthwhile to appoint its own Minister of Loneliness, it would not only warm the cockles of my heart, but also generate resources to tackle and prevent serious outbreaks of an inner pandemic.

*Huynh Thi Ngoc Han is a migration consultant. The opinions expressed are her own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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