What the Surgeon General Missed About America’s Loneliness Epidemic

On May 2nd, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, said that the epidemic that predated COVID-19 in the U.S., currently affecting half of all Americans. It sounded the alarm about the reported loneliness phenomenon. That’s a serious problem. According to one dramatic formula, lack of social ties proves to be as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

Mercy has spoken and written on the subject for years, dating back to 2017. harvard business review About the “Work and Loneliness Epidemic”. This month, an 82-page advisory from the Surgeon General’s Office, “Our Loneliness and Isolation Epidemic,” was released, containing a prescription for the “healing effects of social connections and community.”

For those who prefer two-minute YouTube recaps, Murthy explains, “The key to connection is simple,” answering a friend’s phone call, inviting someone over for a meal, conversing. Hear and be there. And she seeks out opportunities to serve others. “These steps may seem small,” admits the Surgeon General, “but they are very powerful.”

Sadly, the document does not adequately explain why Americans are the way they are. all at once It doesn’t use simple but very powerful tricks like the one above. This is a pity. Mercy is a seasoned physician, so she knows for sure that proper diagnosis is a necessary step in making a truly effective prescription.

Of course, there are good reasons for this omission. It is difficult to fully understand the deep causes of our current disconnection, and we do not mind comprehensive clarification in government reports. But there are some things I can say.

This advisory document contains an analysis of the concept of social ties. Investigation into its various effects, especially on young people. A list of recommended actions for governments, public health agencies, charities, schools, technology companies, media, parents, caregivers and individuals. They were also asked to fulfill the role of a “workplace.”

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Marty speaks at the 91st Annual Conference of Mayors Winter Conference at the Capital Hilton in Washington, DC, January 18, 2023.Mandel NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

It’s good to see workplaces on this list, but I wish more attention was paid to the role economics plays in our current predicament. While economic prosperity is generally cited as one of the major social determinants of health, the recommendations focus on “communities compromised by structural barriers” and “economic insecurity” and related It chooses ambiguous expressions about the impact of “events”. This reflects the economic instability, status instability, and insecurity that plague the American public in an age of neoliberalism, where maximizing shareholder returns is central to corporations and, in many cases, the only guiding value. A missed opportunity to point out the precarious mix of disconnects from meaningful work. our commercial enterprise.

You can’t just manage the symptoms of this disease. Simply offering better corporate HR programs in the hope of building social connections has resulted in the death of despair, the fentanyl epidemic, and poor Americans suffering three times as many daily pains as the wealthy. It doesn’t do much for diseases such as the fact that you are likely to sue. American. Taken together, these phenomena are part of a multifaceted “social collapse” that we are only beginning to understand.

Loneliness as author Johann Hari pointed out in his 2018 book connection lost, does not simply mean social isolation from others. It stems from various kinds of helplessness. These include disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from early childhood education, disconnection from status and respect, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from hope and a secure future. Disconnection from these vital sources of meaning means managing workers like cogs, automating jobs with dignity, forcing all able-bodied adults into the workforce, and eliminating jobs that are not done on laptops. We can’t think of it without reference to the economy of deprecating and allowing unsafe gig work. Easy summary dismissals are possible and all values ​​are treated as ultimately dependent on financial returns.

All of this is great for stocks, but terrible for American life. What the Surgeon General’s report calls loneliness is a manifestation of disconnection, the result of half a century of economic expulsion and disempowerment in pursuit of ever greater gains.

While this arrangement is often presented as a necessary and natural way to achieve prosperity, other successful models exist, especially in Europe and the global South. Whether called the solidarity economy, the social economy, or something else, this popular movement is a combination of mostly small but highly connected businesses, many of which are democratic governance and It operates as a worker cooperative with self-management.

As a result, the workplace offers much more meaningful work that actually empowers and engages. UNIMED is the world’s largest medical cooperative system and Brazil’s largest medical network, bringing together 354 medical cooperatives serving 20 million people. Other examples include Quebec in Canada and Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. These regions are home to thousands of solidarity-based businesses that account for a significant portion of the region’s GDP. These businesses include jointly run social services that provide the highest quality care, such as childcare, aged care and disability care. They provide a wealth of lesser-known models of innovation in the fields of public health and community welfare.

Neoliberalism finally seems to have used its hands too far. Senators, CEOs, venture capitalists, and Surgeons General are now waking up to the social destruction it has wrought. We should definitely find ways to answer calls from friends and volunteer in our communities. But we are also serious about identifying and countering the deep and powerful forces that make these simple life hacks seem pointless, painful, or downright impossible for a growing number of Americans. need to work on.

Joe Waters is co-founder and CEO of Capita, a think tank of which Ian Marcus Corbin is a senior fellow.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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