By Jane E. Brody. Two years ago, when Vivek H. Murthy, the former Director General of Health for U.S, began research for his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World”, never imagined how relevant the topic would be now that it is about to be published.

The coronavirus pandemic and the advice stemming from it (staying home if possible, avoiding meeting with others, and avoiding close contact even on the street) have intensified the damage inflicted by factors that already isolate people and have become irrelevant many of the antidotes for isolation.

Many people are not isolating themselves from the coronavirus contingency. Photo: Reforma

As Murthy points out, we are programmed to have a human connection that can counteract the damaging biological effects of stress and anxiety; however, face-to-face interactions have already been undermined by electronic “conversations” in which human needs and feelings are conveyed with less honesty. We are likely to speak more frequently with our answering machines than with each other.

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According to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, social isolation has been linked to a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, and 32 percent increased risk of stroke.

After all, we evolve as a species that thrives on human connection and cooperation. If we put these aspects on hold, we will inevitably have to pay a price, and it is likely that it is not just the elderly who pay it, although many of them had already lost significant human contact long before the coronavirus attacked. The damaging health effects of loneliness are not limited to an age or ethnic group. Any of us can suffer the consequences, as Murthy narrated that happened to him when he was a shy boy and rejected by peers of his age.

Murthy reported, based on various studies, that the impact of social isolation and loneliness on longevity is equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and outweighing the risks associated with obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise. For many people, the advice to avoid COVID-19 through social distancing can increase the risk of physical and emotional harm from inappropriate social contact.

My daughter-in-law stressed my need to be strict about safety guidelines, not only for my own health, but to avoid a domino effect that could endanger the lives of the most fragile members of my extended family. There is no place for selfishness during a deadly pandemic.

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All this raises the following question: What can people do to minimize the risk of feeling lonely when they are prevented from having direct human contact? Murthy explained that loneliness is different from being alone: ​​”Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you need the social connections you need: the feeling of closeness, trust and affection of our true friends, loved ones and community.”

Within that definition are important clues to counteract the effects of physical isolation that we must now adhere to to slow the spread of this deadly and possibly unstoppable infection. The best we can do at this time is to keep the most vulnerable people safe and to avoid being overwhelmed by our health centers and medical personnel by those who become seriously ill.

So far, this disaster has created the best disposition of people in many communities. For example, my younger neighbors offered to help me in case I needed something: food, medicine, whatever. A block away, people exchanged emails and phone numbers so that if someone needed help they could call a neighbor without leaving their home.

Attempts to avoid the coronavirus can increase the risk of physical and emotional harm from limited social contact. Photo: New York Times

I just hope these generous feelings survive what are likely to be prolonged restrictions on personal freedom, especially now that kids are home 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have closed most of the fun places. and cultural, physical and emotional recreation outside the home. It is vitally important to maintain the human connections that restore the soul.

Michele Weiner-Davis, a personal relations expert from Boulder, Colorado, told me: “Offering to help others, reaching out, taking the Buddhist perspective of focusing on the here and now, can inoculate a person against anxiety. “

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Murthy said: “Helping someone can be an incredibly powerful experience that not only creates a connection between people, but also confirms that we are bringing something of value to the world. Approach your neighbors and ask them how they are, how you can help them with a large or small action. Many people will be struggling during this crisis. They will not receive the help, income or emotional support they need to overcome it. ”

A recurring phrase I heard from all the people I asked was: if you’re not doing anything else, “pick up the phone, call someone and ask how they are,” Weiner-Davis said. Stacy Torres, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed: “Old-fashioned phone calls are very important. You can hear something in a person’s voice that cannot be detected in an email. ”

Last week, I spent an entire day talking to distant friends on the phone, catching up on their lives, and sending verbal hugs. I ended the day feeling connected and refreshed. This virus has been a valuable reminder of what I was missing.

Murthy stated that it need not be a long conversation. “It’s not about looking for time, but about making the time we have available be of better quality,” he said. “Eliminate distractions when speaking, not doing other things at the same time. A five-minute conversation with someone’s full attention can make a big difference in how a person feels. The sound and tone of a person’s voice give us a lot of information about how they feel. Videoconferencing is even better, because this interaction is the one that best represents direct contact because you can see the other person. ”

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“If I had a creed for my book, it would be: ‘people first,'” he said. “There are too many people who worship false gods (wealth, reputation, power) who are not more important than the people in our lives. Relationships are what make our lives worth living. ”

Torres also urged people to “do everything possible to connect with people without neglecting the recommended guidelines, such as making donations to community kitchens not only with money for food, but for the person who delivers them.” We have to do everything possible remotely or 2 meters away. “

Once this viral crisis is over, my most cherished hope is that we don’t forget the lessons we learned during this time about the value of creating and maintaining meaningful connections with other people. As Murthy noted, “If we want to be a stronger and more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding the people-centered foundation.”

Attempts to avoid the coronavirus may increase the risk of physical and emotional harm due to limited social contact.

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