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The economy of solitude

By Rafael Lopes

In recent days, the world has found itself afflicted by yet another pandemic. The pandemic of which I speak is not of a pathogenic nature but rather a psychological one: loneliness. The concept of loneliness is by no means a new phenomenon but it has been thrust back into the forefront of the conversation as a direct result of the isolating nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

COVID-19 was a reprieve for some as it allowed us to spend more time thinking and less time doing. However, this isolation quickly began to have pervasive effects to the overall wellbeing of some. COVID-19 essentially rearchitected society in such a way that the new normal isn’t defined by Friday lunches with coworkers or weekend BBQs with friends. The new normal that COVID created was one of remote work (thanks to a digitization of large swaths of the economy) but also one of physical and in some cases, mental isolation.

The advent of this digital infrastructure has allowed us to create a tailor-made virtual world while also having to grapple with the isolation and feelings of loneliness. The consequences of this phenomenon range from the significant increase in mental health problems to the risk of premature death.

Since we live in a market economy, ruled by the law of supply and demand many commercial antidotes emerged from the need for affection and companionship — which gave birth to a new concept: the Economy of Solitude. Thus, a significant industry sprung up around this new pervasive loneliness that gripped society. Start-ups and large corporations alike all began to concoct their POV on tackling isolation with initiatives, products, online seminars, remote therapy (the list continues ad nauseam) created to not only mask the symptoms but also treat the root causes of loneliness. Today, we see a range of offers from friend-for-hire services to rental step-parents or even robot caregivers that we can talk to, for example.

Despite realizing such a quick response from the market, we might question whether this world of new offers comes to supply the demand or rather create a codependent relationship where the creator of the disease is then entrusted to treat it. Is loneliness seen as a disease that must be cared for and fought when harmful? Or is it perceived as a commodity generating billions of dollars in profit for entrepreneurs at the expense of the lives and health of thousands?

As we hopefully reach the end of this pandemic where restrictions are relaxed and the world can breathe a collective sigh of relief, it is important that we take the time to reflect and have honest conversations about what has surfaced. Will large societal actors see the benefit in having honest conversations about what problems have emerged? 

The greatest antidote will be the prioritization of the concept of “community”. Governments, NGOs, large corporations and small businesses alike can all play a pivotal role in promoting mental health and community amongst their congregations. On an individual level, we human beings need to practice our humanity more: empathy, compassion and solidarity. It is time we own our individual power to create a sense of community with those around us.

You never know when a “Good morning” and a “How are you?” could save a life.