Sunday, 5 April 2020

Health, happiness and human contact: Timely lessons in the age of coronavirus

Suffering through a global lockdown.

Living out the coronavirus lockdown has underlined what is for me a powerful and ironic lesson of this experiment in social distancing: Even as we stay apart for our collective health to prevent the spread of the virus, over the long run, our health and happiness will depend on how closely as individuals, families and communities we come together.
When on March 17 the church bells in our little French village struck noon, announcing the beginning of a total lockdown, I felt energized, optimistic. Yes, I’d be rarely allowed to leave my house, and yes, there would likely be soldiers patrolling the streets, making sure we obeyed, but we were finally doing something. With most people isolated in their homes, we would tackle the pandemic, flatten the curve.
But when five days ago the prime minister announced that the lockdown would be prolonged to April 15 at the very least, I felt panic. I had a sudden urge to just get out of the house, jump on my bike and pedal as fast and as far as I could. Miles and miles ahead, breaking the rules.
I didn’t go biking, of course. For more than two weeks I haven’t walked further than 0.6 miles, or 1 km, from my house, as stated by law. I haven’t seen my friends in weeks; I’m simply not permitted. As I write this, it’s day 17 of the lockdown for the four of us: me, my husband, our 7-year-old daughter, and a family friend who temporarily lives with us.

We are lucky — we have each other, we have a garden, a dog. But with each passing day, I feel the walls closing in on me. Here in France, we are only allowed out of the house to go to work, if it can’t be suspended or done from home, to go grocery shopping, in the vicinity of the house, one person per family at a time, to see a doctor, to exercise, or to walk our dogs — no further than that 1 km from home.
Each time we want to leave the house, we need to fill up a special permission form and sign it on “our honor.” There are fines for breaking these rules. The first time you get caught, it’s €135 (or about $145). For repeat offenses, the penalty can be even €3750 ($4,052) and six months in prison.
Enforcement is strict. When my husband had to take our dog to the vet for an emergency visit, on a six-mile stretch of rural roads he passed two police checkpoints, and got stopped at one. In cities, it’s not just the police that keep tabs on people, but soldiers, too. Most French are glad for it.
My 7-year-old is getting antsy, too. The first 10 days, she was fine, even excited by the new “adventure” (her words). Now she says she would like to see her friends “for real,” not just over the internet. She misses her playground, and wishes we could go “just somewhere else.” I guess these are the feelings that infamously pushed some Spaniards to take stuffed toy dogs for walks. Luckily, most people in France are not that desperate yet. Maybe fear helps keep us in check. Even in my tiny village there are several confirmed cases of COVID-19.
When I talk with my friends in the U.S., in Canada, they often tell me that they are also “self-isolating,” so they feel roughly the same as we do here in France. But it matters whether you are staying home because you choose to do so or because the law tells you to. There is the lack of freedom, of power to decide for yourself.
However, it’s not all bad. In some weird way, I feel that the rules make the lockdown more liberating. I’m not suffering any more than other people along the Seine. We are all in it together.
This togetherness part is really something that keeps me going. In our local grocery store, even though some products are now notoriously in low supply, the shelves are almost never bare. There will still be one bottle of milk left behind for those who might really need it, two bananas, one box of eggs.
It’s a silly thing, a single bottle of milk, but it can truly lift my spirits. Apart from the few rule-breakers, we try to show we care. With money collected in the community, our local boulangerie now prepares sandwiches for doctors and nurses at the nearby hospital. We put smiley faces and scribble “Merci!” on our garbage bins, to show those who collect them that we appreciate their jobs, which overnight became risky (think of all the virus-loaded tissues people throw out).
Suddenly, 8 p.m. is my favorite time of day. This is when we go out into the garden and cheer and clap as loud as we can, our voices mingling with those of our neighbors. We applaud doctors and nurses who fight this war for us — and at the same time reassure each other that we are all still there.
What worries me though, is that Italians are giving up on singing. Italy is about six days ahead of France in pandemic progression, and we seem to be following their footsteps rather closely. Will we give up soon, too? Will the 8 p.m. clapping wane from one day to the next? For now, we are dealing with the lockdown better than we ourselves have expected. When asked in mid-March, 71% of the French said they wouldn’t be able to endure a confinement longer than three weeks.
We are almost there now, but the moods are stable. The gloom hasn’t set in.
For now, most people here still hope. Surveys show that over half of the French believe that the confinement will help them redefine their priorities in life, and 40% envision radical changes in the society for the world “after.”
They long for a more united Europe, less capitalism, less consumerism. As one country after another puts its citizens in lockdowns, some say that a forced quarantine may help us appreciate our friends and family more, and grow stronger communities.
Maybe we will finally turn our faces away from our cellphones, move more offline. Maybe we will slow down, get to know our neighbors.
These are uplifting thoughts. But they’re brief, and soon we’re back to worrying whether our immune systems are strong enough, whether we will resist the virus, whether our mental health won’t give out after weeks in lockdown.
I do know one thing, though: Dreaming up tight communities and hoping for better health are not two separate matters. While researching my book, I’ve read more than 600 studies and talked with dozens of scientists, and learned that how well our health functions is intricately linked with the strength of your community, your friendships, your empathy.
Even your immune system functions better when you are surrounded by close others. In one study, for instance, socially isolated people had a 45% higher risk of developing the common cold than did more gregarious people. In communities with high social cohesion — which is science-speak for trust, willingness to help, and simply getting along with your neighbors — the incidence of type 2 diabetes is 22% lower than it is in less friendly places.

Some lessons here are very practical from the coronavirus perspective. For instance, experiments reveal that hearing your mom’s reassuring words on the phone causes a larger oxytocin release than does receiving similar support though a text message. Oxytocin, in turn, improves the functioning of our immune systems. So call, instead of texting, and maybe your body will be just that little bit more resilient to the virus.

Research shows that kindness, too, can help you stay healthy in the times of a pandemic — whoever left that bottle of milk in my village store may have inadvertently gotten a health boost.

Despite moments of claustrophobia and the creeping worries over the health-care system, the economy, just like most of my compatriots I still hope for a better future. I’m still clapping, I’m still cheering. I can’t tell how long this enthusiasm will last, but for now I hope that we will emerge stronger out of this pandemic. Maybe the lockdown will help us change for the better, to be kinder, more empathetic, more neighborly?

We certainly do need change — and not just the French. As many as a quarter of Americans say they don’t have even a single friend in whom they can confide. Only a quarter know the names of their next-door neighbors. Besides the obvious societal and mental downsides, from a health and longevity perspective, that’s disastrous.

I believe that if the pandemic, and the necessary confinement that goes with it, helps us rethink our priorities and focus more on each other instead of our phones and our consumption, we could grow healthier — both now and in the future. If we survive this, we may emerge with stronger immune systems, stronger arteries, less diabetes. If we grow as people, we can grow healthier, too.

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