The findings suggest recovery from the pandemic may take a long time and could affect people’s view of their relationships over time. “There were cumulative effects from the social isolation,” said David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer sciences at Northeastern and one of the study authors.
To determine social isolation, the researchers asked each person about the number of people they could count on to care for them if they got sick, to lend them money, to talk to about a problem if they were depressed, or to help them find a job. Someone who said they had only one person, or no one they could turn to, in a given category was considered socially isolated.
The researchers polled a total of 185,223 individuals over 12 different surveys from April 2020 to June 2021.
Even now, with many more people vaccinated against the coronavirus and much more actively engaged in their communities, people may be thinking differently about those they previously relied on for help. “That pause in life may be causing a lot of revisitation in our relationships,” said Dr. Lazer, who pointed to the unusual number of people deciding to leave their jobs as the pandemic ends. “It takes a while to heal the social fabric.”
The increase in feelings of isolation even when the most severe restrictions were lifted “is striking,” said Mario L. Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard who was not involved in the study. People may have felt they had fewer people to lean on because they remained physically distant from a broad network of acquaintances and friends, he said, even when the lockdowns had eased.