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on Apr 17, 2020

The impact of Covid-19 & Social Life

The coronavirus pandemic has made one thing painfully clear for many single people and people who live alone: The most precious commodity these days is human contact.

Under social distancing, the “haves” are those lucky humans who’ve got kids, partners, or roommates. Yes, they may be loud and exhausting and downright crazy-making at times. But a warm body is a warm body. To the “have-nots” who are isolated in their homes for days or weeks on end, this can seem like an incredible luxury. A Skype call just isn’t the same as in-person company.

So over the past couple weeks, I’ve heard some of these have-nots asking: What if I create a “closed circle” of friends who are all healthy, and we only hang out with each other? Say I decide to see only one friend, and I know that she’s only seeing one other friend, who’s only seeing her. Then we have a loop of three people who can still have dinner together sometimes, so we’re not maddeningly lonely. Is that okay?

It’s an important question, because even before the coronavirus came along, loneliness was a silent epidemic, afflicting millions around the world. A meta-review of 70 studies found that loneliness increases your risk of premature mortality by 26 percent. Some experts say it’s as bad for your longevity as smoking. We know that it actually hurts our white blood cells.

Isolation can also be very harmful to people’s mental health, triggering or exacerbating conditions like anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. So while we absolutely need to follow social distancing rules as laid out by public health authorities and local governments, we should also ask what we can do to mitigate the “social recession” they’re causing.

With this in mind, I called a few epidemiologists to ask: For people who are really struggling with isolation, is forming a “closed circle” of friends a safe and acceptable strategy? The experts explained why, unfortunately, it’s not as good an idea as you might think. Their answers, edited for length and clarity, are below.

Look, I’m single, and I get how hard it is. I went through a 21-day quarantine back in 2014 when I came back from West Africa after treating Ebola. It’s extremely hard.

But I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable doing something like this because I don’t know where my friends have been. You have to think about the other people, what potential risk factors they have, and how much you trust them.

I’m an infectious diseases doctor, so by nature I don’t think people tell me the truth. I never fully believe people. I can’t tell you how many times my patients would come in and their test would come back positive and they’d say, “I don’t know how it got there, it just got there!” I’d ask them about their sexual histories, and then I’d test them and they have gonorrhea or chlamydia and again they say, “I don’t know how it got there!”

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