COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus another pandemic building in Australia - loneliness.
Nearly 3 million Australians report feeling lonely most of the time, a figure that has risen by 800,000 over the past decade.
New research by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre shows COVID-19 has amplified these trends, from enforced isolation, uncertainty about work and income, the inability to plan for the future, and the threat of serious illness or worse.
Young people and seniors, people with a disability or serious illness, Indigenous Australians, and migrants from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are more likely to feel lonely and unsupported.
Major life transitions also make us more vulnerable. Moving from school to work, from work to retirement, separation or bereavement can all reduce our connections and threaten our sense of identity.
Humans need to connect and feel they belong - but increasingly our modern way of life is making meaningful community participation harder. People who become lonely visit their GPs more often and present at hospital more frequently. Social isolation is associated with higher rates of smoking and alcohol dependence, and less physical activity. And sick people get lonely - those with a serious illness report less social support and interpersonal trust.
Ironically, in the new digital world, engaging online isn't always the answer as the connection can be unsatisfying and lack meaning. More young women than ever feel lonely, with new data suggesting COVID-19 and the ubiquity of social media can amplify feelings of vulnerability and isolation.
And the move to online service delivery can increase social isolation.
The risk is especially acute for seniors who may not have the resources or confidence to engage effectively with online services, and who miss out on the security from face-to-face contact with service providers.
Governments should ensure the move towards online service delivery doesn't lessen the quality of face-to-face engagement with vulnerable sections of society.
One of the best remedies for loneliness is participation in activities that create meaningful connections. This might mean sport, hobbies, or volunteering. There is a strong economic case for investment in community initiatives that build social networks and connections to place, encourage physical activity, and - most importantly - give a sense of purpose and belonging.
- John Curtin distinguished professor Alan Duncan, associate professor Astghik Mavisakalyan and Chris Twomey, from Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre.