People who live alone will feel like prisoners when a provincewide lockdown takes effect today, meaning social contact between people who don’t live in the same household will be banned.
The new measures will affect everyone, but for those living alone it will mean a great deal of isolation and is likely to have a significant effect on their mental well-being.
Luke Filipowicz, 30, has watched day after day for the past few weeks as the number of COVID-19 cases continued to climb in Winnipeg. He pared down his contacts to one person, his girlfriend. On Tuesday, when it was announced the province would ban social contact between households, his heart sank.
“(My girlfriend)’s been the only person I’ve been seeing for well over a month now, and we made that decision together. She doesn’t go see her family, I don’t go see mine. We aren’t seeing friends. We haven’t been to any sort of social gatherings in months because we just believe that’s what people should be doing.
“The fact that some other people aren’t doing that, it does sort of make me feel like this one last thing that I could hold onto was taken away from me. And not because of me, but because of external factors. That’s hard to take, that’s hard to hear.”
Filipowicz says he supports a lockdown, but he’s concerned about the toll on his frame of mind.
“Facebook and Zoom conferences, while that’s very good, it’s just not quite the same as having social interaction with somebody. And as somebody who deals with anxiety issues already, the pandemic, in general, has been really bad,” he told the Free Press.
Ayda Loewen-Clarke, 27, lives alone and works from home. She is also worried about the loneliness that will set in over the next month.
“This time of year, the days are really short. It’s a generally sad time of year that’s really only made better by cosy gatherings with friends and family. I am worried I’m just going to be really lonely. But I do think the first lockdown really prepared me for feeling more comfortable with virtual hangouts with friends and stuff like that,” she said.
Loewen-Clarke watched on Tuesday when the chief provincial health officer announced the impending lockdown. She had hoped there would be an exemption similar to what was offered in British Columbia, where single-person households could join one other household under lockdown rules.
At the press conference, Dr. Brent Roussin was asked to offer specific guidelines for Manitobans who live alone. He delivered his “black-and-white” answer — “keep your in-person contacts to your household” — while saying officials considered the need to leave room for a “grey zone response.”
Roussin said it’s not a good idea for people who live alone to merge households, but he acknowledged some situations are “low risk.”
“Right now, the suggestion is, socialize only within your household contacts, leave your house for essential purposes… so it’s social distancing, not social isolation. Keep in contact with others, make sure you’re reaching out to family and friends, especially if they’re feeling isolated, but we should try to keep our (in-person) social interactions... to our household members for these upcoming weeks,” Roussin said.
About 135,500, or 10 per cent, of Manitobans live alone, 2016 federal census data show.
Meanwhile, Manitobans who just want someone to talk to are turning to a volunteer-run program that’s been touted by the provincial government since March, the Help Next Door program. More than half of the requests for help are for deliveries, such as groceries, cleaning supplies and medication. But the second-highest volume of requests is related to social interaction, via phone or video chat.
“People just wanting to talk to somebody, because they’re lonely and they’re scared,” said Joelle Foster, CEO of NorthForge, which runs the program.
Before the pandemic hit in March, Verena Menec was part of a group that has tried to reduce social isolation among Winnipeggers. Seniors are most likely to live alone and be lonely, said Menec, a professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba. In Winnipeg, about 30 per cent of residents 55 and older live alone. Her group received $3 million in federal funding last fall to start the Older Winnipeggers Social Engagement Project. Their work had to be put on hold at a time when it was needed most.
Research has shown people who live in isolation are more likely to die sooner and suffer negative mental- and physical-health consequences, Menec said.
Studies haven’t determined how much time is spent in isolation for people to feel negative effects, but Menec said she’s concerned about a month-long time frame, especially for people who have mental-health conditions.
“People who are fragile to begin with, who have those vulnerabilities, are going to be hit even harder, faster,” she said. Reaching out online, over the phone, and via programs such as A&O Support Services for Older Adults is key, she said.
At the same time, Menec said she understands the difficulty of tailoring public health messages to people who live alone.
“It’s a trade-off; the negative health effects of the loneliness potential (with) social isolation, versus of course, the real risk that we don’t want to take either,” Menec said.
“I can see the position that (Dr. Roussin is) in, that he has to put it this way. There’s just too great a risk right now... So I would say for people who are living alone... stay connected in other ways. Pick up the phone, try to get them online.”
Katy Harmer, 34, struggled with the loneliness of the first lockdown while living alone. It was a big part of her decision to move in with a friend a few weeks ago.
She knows she’s lucky to have technology at her fingertips, to be able to get groceries herself and so on, but the isolation is tough.
“People with their small children running around all the time are probably wishing that they were by themselves,” she said. “And the people who were by themselves, all we wanted was somebody else around.”
Sarah Lawrynuik, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter and Katie May, Winnipeg Free Press