22 April 2020

The coronavirus impact on solitude and the nature of connection

Chair: Mr Emerson Csorba

Ditchley’s virtual programme is designed in response to the pandemic and the dramatic effects it is having on our lives. The programme considers our responses in terms of the impact on our personal lives, how we live, our communities and changes in wider society. We will progress to a broader focus on the systems underpinning societies, ranging from ones we can determine such as the economic, to the climate system on which we depend. At the core of this programme is an ambition to understand the challenge and questions this pandemic raises for democratic societies.

This first discussion explored the impact of the coronavirus on solitude and the nature of connection. We reflected on conditions of solitude, loneliness, isolation, forced togetherness, and what we can learn in these first weeks of pandemic response about our responsibilities, agency and interdependency. 

Entering into solitude

Humans are by nature social beings but throughout history and ancient history, peoples have at times, had to flee and escape into solitude. Most religions and cultures have an affinity or even reverence for solitude. One reason is that solitude and human connection are interwoven. From early Christian monasticism to Thoreau’s Walden, the attraction to solitude has often been one of entering into a different and new relationship with self and others. It is also not necessarily a state of pure aloneness; usually those in solitude re-engage periodically with others through food, worship and fellowship.

Finding meaning in solitude was described as a gift and as an opportunity to better recognise small gifts in everyday life. There was some consensus in the discussion that solitude can be achieved even when solitude is thrown onto a person or collective, although forced solitude raises many challenges. Indeed, there was a sense in this discussion that we are in a moment of breaking from a previous state that may have actually limited agency and reduced potential for individual responsibility. This breaking of connections with others or the world in order to re-make them, however, can be a life-enhancing transition – an opportunity to see the world differently and to re-order.

In this sense solitude is redeeming, prompting reflection as to what we wish to re-order ourselves to. The Earth was a clear focus of this re-ordering, raised continually throughout the discussions. There was consensus that sustaining any re-ordering will be a major challenge to which there are currently no clear answers. The role of story may be particularly important here, as well as collective rituals to remind ourselves of the need for re-ordering. The speed of change in modern life and the speed at which the stories of the pandemic are changing brought some uneasiness and uncertainty within the group, particularly when thinking about how to establish any meaningful, lasting re-ordering.

Solitude and loneliness

Participants highlighted that there is a difference between solitude and loneliness. A period of loneliness can cause lasting pain, damage and anguish. Exile, abandonment and isolation are terrors that can be hard to recover from. For many, lockdown does not offer a positive solitude. We can be lonely with others. In families or households in which care givers are constantly answering others’ needs – there is no solitude.

For many older people, loneliness rather than solitude was already a condition of life.  The instruction now to remain ‘cocooned’ or shielded lays bare the social isolation, loneliness and lack of physical contact that may already be reality. The long-term effects brought on by a lack of physical contact can be corrosive. And yet, this is the prospect facing older people – many of whom have been active contributors in their communities and networks – If they are asked to stay home for longer. 

What are we learning in our solitude?

We are learning that we cannot hide so easily from our responsibilities as perhaps we once could. We had become used to ‘contracting out’ many of our relationships – buying foods and services through networks and supply chains that obscure exploitative realities of the transactions we engaged in. We were not required to think too much about sources of food, or how we’ll put food on the table – concerns that are daily realities for people in many parts of the world. What much of humanity faces we took for granted. This is now an uncomfortable realisation.

Is the lockdown forcing us to consider our own agency – our power to make change and our co-dependency? Without distraction – ‘the embedded panic in the modern western psyche’ – we are challenged to confront ourselves and take responsibility for our own emotions. We are responsible for making our own daily reality. This was at one point described as confronting our ‘full agency,’ a startling realisation perhaps. Are we now having to think harder about responsibilities to others – those within our household and others, on whom we depend? The sharp increases in domestic violence (in the UK, Canada, Ireland), and the panicked sharing of misinformation, show that this is a hellish situation for some. 

Can we take this opportunity to better understand both our agency and co-dependence and broaden our response to the looming crises of climate and biodiversity? This crisis has brought us face-to-face with death and that this may help our understanding of human solidarity and what we need to do in relation to climate change. Can we take the lessons we are learning into the way we deal with climate change? One of the main takeaways in this discussion was the need to bridge from discussions on solitude into climate and that there is a link between these two topics.


We noted shifts in recognition of the value of shop workers, delivery drivers, rubbish collectors and personal care workers, as well as the enormous gratitude to health workers. These people have always been critical; it is our appreciation that is new. Care workers on low wages, working in many different care settings are at risk of carrying the virus. These working conditions became starkly visible and had to be changed – quickly – when it became apparent in one Canadian example that care workers forced to work across multiple care homes in order to make ends meet may have accidentally transmitted the virus across many homes. Had these individuals been properly paid and their working conditions taken into account, they would not have needed to travel from home to home.

We heard of new models of care already being developed in which care workers were respected, protected and given direct responsibilities to determine their own approaches. This innovation in social care may now be accelerated. Can we hold onto these insights and those generated by the impressive responses made by communities in taking care of each other? The very elderly, and lonely have always needed this attention, this is not new, and we must not forget it.

The pandemic was said to be accelerating the arrival of the future. Much is now up in the air. Change happening now provides a route to re-think future policies. Will it last? The answer depends, in part, on how we tell the story of this crisis – we must all contribute. And, part of the telling of this story is the search for moral leadership. Where is the moral leadership in our world today?

Participants: Emerson Csorba (Chair), Ditchley's Chief of Staff; Rachel Carey, Chief Scientist at Zinc; Liz Greenhalgh, Ditchley’s Impact Lead; Jamie Hawkey, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey; Suzanne Johnson, VP for Corporate and External Affairs for Lloyd’s Register; Hannah Marazzi from Cardus, a nonpartisan, faith based think-tank; Professor Ito Peng Research Chair in Global Social Policy at the University of Toronto; John Stackhouse a Senior VP, Office of the CEO at RBC.

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.