Parliamentary speeches

Loneliness and COVID-19

March 17, 2021

If 2020 has taught us anything, it's the importance of human connection and, of course, the significance of its absence. Loneliness was a quiet crisis in Australia before we'd even heard of COVID-19. Now it is impossible to ignore it. This is a good thing, but we need to seize this moment to make ending loneliness the priority it needs to be. Loneliness is a feeling of social isolation. It's not having the connections we all need. This is obviously a very common experience, but its consequences aren't well enough understood. Loneliness really hurts us and it can kill. President Obama's former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has described loneliness as a public health epidemic. He rated loneliness as a more significant public health challenge than obesity, as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Significantly, President Biden is set to reappoint him as Surgeon General. Japan's government has recently appointed a minister for loneliness to tackle rising suicide rates in that country.

We know that before the pandemic one in four Australians experienced loneliness some or all of the time at damaging levels. Last year the experience of COVID-19 doubled that rate to one in two—half the Australian population. Loneliness can no longer be ignored in Australia, and it won't be. Loneliness must be regarded as a public health priority. Its connection to issues like addiction, violence, anxiety and depression mean we have to treat it as such. We must also consider how loneliness can impact the whole of someone's life—their health, wellbeing and capacity to work and to do all the things they want to do.

I'm very proud to serve as the co-chair of the new Parliamentary Friends of Ending Loneliness group, and I look forward to its meeting next week. Together with the member for Reid, I'm hopeful that this bipartisan group will raise the profile of loneliness and generate discussion about what can be done by government to tackle it, looking at evidence and examples overseas and in the community.

Late last year, Ending Loneliness Together, a national organisation dedicated to addressing loneliness, released a landmark white paper on the impact of loneliness in Australia. All involved in this work deserve thanks and for this to be responded to. Amongst many confronting statistics, the white paper tells us that people who are lonely and socially isolated are 29 per cent more likely to suffer coronary heart disease and 32 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke. Lonely adults have a 58 per cent higher risk of developing dementia than their less lonely peers. People experiencing loneliness are 17 times as likely to have made a suicide attempt in the last 12 months. These are deeply disturbing numbers, but the statistics only tell half of this story; it is the personal stories that cut so deeply.

I want to acknowledge the efforts of many in the media to raise awareness and illustrate these personal stories of loneliness and, importantly, to work to end the stigma that unfortunately has inhibited both personal conversations about loneliness and forming an effective policy response to this scourge—a policy response that recognises all of its dimensions, including how it affects all population groups in the community. The impact of racism is something we must consider as we also respond to the disturbing connection between loneliness and right-wing extremism. A number of News Corp newspapers—not always publications I praise in this place—including The Courier Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser, Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph, led by journalist Ellen Whinnett, are doing an excellent job drawing attention to loneliness through powerful personal stories, saying through their campaign we should never walk alone. This is a powerful call that should be responded to across the community. I also want to acknowledge Claudia Long at the ABC for her ongoing interest in this issue.

Too often, being lonely has been seen as regrettable, something to be suffered in silence. This must change. We need to talk about it and we need to act.