• Loneliness and social isolation can have negative effects to our health.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, we must remember to care for ourselves, our communities and the environment.
  • Together we can improve our wellbeing in the short term and our long-term resilience to risk.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people around the world have been told to stay at home with their families, if they have them, or alone if they don’t. Maintaining physical distance from others and stopping "non-essential contact" will help us slow the spread of the disease. However, many of us are finding self-isolation challenging. It’s hard for children who prefer to see their friends in school, or for workers who commute not just for a pay-check but to connect with like-minds. And what about our elders who shop not just for food but for social interaction?

Greater physical distance can reduce our sense of social and emotional connection, leading to greater loneliness. Studies have shown that loneliness can have a variety of adverse effects on our health including increasing the risk of heart disease, depression and dementia. A landscape analysis of scientific literature in 2015 showed that chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by 29%.

As our leaders ask us to show solidarity by keeping distance, how do we stay well? The care economy could help us transform our experience of lockdown, making us more resilient to these and other large-scale disruptions in future. Here are three things you can do.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Care for yourself

Self-care simply means taking action to preserve or improve your mental, emotional and physical health. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of self-care. Yet in times of heightened stress and anxiety, we become more susceptible to emotional imbalance, illness and disease.

There are a plethora of blogs, books and guides on self-care, offering orientation in this expansive (and at times confusing) realm. The basic guidance includes:

  • Observing what makes you feel well
  • Investing time in those activities, and
  • Deprioritizing interactions that drain your emotional and physical energy.

Care for your community

One of the world’s longest-standing studies, which has run for more than 80 years at Harvard, shows that embracing community helps us live longer. As Robert Waldinger, a Harvard Professor explains: “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.” Close relationships more than social class, IQ, or even genes is the largest predictor of someone’s lifespan and their happiness.

In a time of forced social separation, maintaining the connection with close friends and family becomes increasingly important. So too, does our need to reach out of our comfort zone and connect with neighbours we may not have spoken to, or elderly living nearby in isolation.

For example, in the space of three days, 35 Facebook groups have been set up across Canada to promote ‘caremongering’ – everyday acts of kindness in small communities for those who need it, as social distancing becomes a norm. The hashtag #iso highlights posts featuring people "in search of" help, and the #offer hashtag shows those who are happy to support with a task or connection.

Chris Segrin, a behavioural scientist at the University of Arizona makes the case that social media, texting and video calls aren’t as good as face-to-face interactions, but they’re “definitely better than no interaction.” Just knowing you have someone to count on if needed is enough to dampen the effects of social isolation, according to lab-run behavioural experiments.

Virtual socializing, digital coffee-breaks and remote dinners can help us retain our sense of emotional connection. And hooking the grandma next-door up to FaceTime could help her connect with friends she would normally meet in person.

Care for the environment

As the economy has slowed, so too have emissions and pollution. China’s skies have turned blue. Noxious gasses from aircraft have disappeared as jets are grounded. The short-term benefit for the environment are already visible.

A combination of two animated images show the fluctuation of nitrogen dioxide emissions across Europe from January 2020 until March 11, 2020. New data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite reveal the decline of air pollution, specifically nitrogen dioxide emissions, over Italy.  This reduction is particularly visible in northern Italy which coincides with its nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in this handout obtained by Reuters on March 13, 2020. European Space Agency/Handout via Reuters  THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC29JF9PPCTR
The fluctuation of nitrogen dioxide emissions across Europe from January 2020 until 11 March.
Image: European Space Agency/Handout via Reuters

However, the slow-burn crisis that climate change presents means that our society will be faced with increased risks in future. Widespread droughts, flooding, the spread of disease into new geographic areas as temperatures warm, and the threat of sea-level rise will all require a collective response to manage.

One idea is to put clean energy at the heart of stimulus plans, as Fatih Birol, Executive Director of IEA (International Energy Agency), explains. Airlines requesting aid from governments could be paired with stringent requirements to cut emissions, while aid packages could orient to helping to re-establish emissions-efficient public transport systems and green jobs.

What if agricultural firms localized supply chains as countries closed borders? What if retailers re-engineered packaging that they are finding harder to source with COVID-19 shop closures? What if we each went out and planted a tree, named it and looked out for its well-being?

Coronavirus is an example of a global risk requiring an international, coordinated response. It is a test case for us to re-wire our personal and economic systems towards those that put care front and centre – both for our own wellbeing in the short term and for our resilience to similar risks in future.