In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory entitled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” which finds that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of American adults reported feeling lonely. The advisory states that a lack of social engagement with others, which for some people includes friends and family, can have serious health effects for socially isolated individuals. This trend of social isolation and attendant civic disengagement could also have implications for the work of emergency management professionals – both from a public health standpoint and in regard to the whole community approach to preparedness.
Public Health Considerations
The first to consider is, of course, the serious public health impacts. The Surgeon General felt compelled to issue the advisory because loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of premature death by 26-29%. Other possible impacts may include an increased risk of dementia and communicable respiratory diseases.
Loneliness and isolation likely increase as a population gets older. For example, Japan has the highest proportion of senior citizens of any country in the world. So many thousands of older citizens die without anyone knowing of their passing for days, weeks, or months that the phenomenon has coined a new word, kodokushi, meaning “lonely death.” Consider if something similar were to occur in the U.S., where 70 million Baby-Boomers – about 20% of the American population – will soon reach their 80s. In addition, about 30% of households are already single-person, and that percentage is expected to rise.
The Challenge for a Whole Community Approach
More important is the impact social isolation and civic disengagement may have on emergency preparedness. The downturn in social engagement echoes the steep decline of Americans’ civic engagement over the last 30 years and was most notably identified by Robert D. Putnam in his work, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The nation’s approach to emergency management is based on engaging and empowering the whole community. However, the success of such efforts is questionable when a significant portion of a population is not engaged.
A majority of Americans (almost 60%) feel some attachment (which includes social connection) to their local communities. But no matter where they live – urban, suburban, or rural – roughly 4 in 10 Americans feel very little or no attachment at all to the places where they live. Therefore, direct outreach by emergency management professionals may only reach a slim majority of citizens.
The whole community approach is also somewhat dependent on peer influence, when people base their decisions – for example, preparing their household for a disaster – on the decisions and behavior of those around them. Again, while emergency managers may be able to leverage peer influence to increase the preparedness of a community, it will still not be the whole community if almost half of the population does not feel a part of it and has little contact with others.
Social creatures have historically relied on each other to survive. However, Pew Center research shows that the level of trust in each other has also eroded over the last several decades – perhaps contributing to the decline in social and civic engagement. Of the 7 in 10 Americans who believe there has been a decline in interpersonal trust over the last 20 years, 14% attribute it to loneliness and social isolation. Historically, the first people to respond after a disaster have been other survivors – one’s neighbors. Although 75% of those polled believe people will cooperate during a crisis, they may still not trust them.
The Value of Social Capital
A community where its citizens are trusting and civically and socially engaged is a community that is rich in social capital. Although difficult to define, social capital is considered the value of social networks – bonding between similar people and bridging between diverse people – with some expectation of reciprocity. It can be measured in a myriad of seemingly benign ways, including voter turnout, blood donation rates, volunteer hours, and public meeting attendance.
Before, during, and after a disaster strikes, there is evidence that communities with an active civil society and high social capital prepare, respond, and recover better. Such communities have more public involvement at every phase of the disaster management cycle, reducing risks, making efforts to prepare, and responding to help neighbors. After a disaster, tight-knit communities share resources (like fuel for generators), work collectively to clear debris, and even open their homes to shelter their neighbors.
What Can Be Done
Perhaps the most important first step for emergency management professionals is understanding the level of social capital (and social isolation) in the communities they serve. But better data on these factors are needed for effective emergency management planning.
In the U.S., a community’s risk is partly determined by the Community Risk Factor, which is a function of its social vulnerability and community resilience values. The most commonly used social vulnerability models include variables such as people age >65 and single-parent households but do not include social capital or even such measures as single-individual households or the socially disengaged. Considering the health risks inherent to the socially isolated, the disconnectedness from their community (which probably includes news and public information), and their general distrust, the argument could be made that they should be considered among the most vulnerable category.
The Baseline Resilience Indicators for Communities include human well-being/cultural/social capital as one of its six broad categories. But again, the variables (e.g., educational attainment equality, pre-retirement age, health insurance) do not lend themselves to studying social and civic engagement and are anyway normalized to provide a simple indicator between zero and one for every county in the country.
Efforts can still be made to increase a community’s social capital while waiting for better data to catch up with the planning needs. However, it should not just be the responsibility of emergency management professionals alone. It will take a “whole community” of public-private partners to fully engage the community socially and civically. As the nation continues to recover from the social isolation caused by the pandemic, now might also be the best time to get started.
The Surgeon General’s advisory presents a national strategy to build social connections that can be adapted into a potential approach for emergency managers at the local level.
- Build a Culture of Connection – Local leaders should model and speak to the value of social connection through public service announcements, opinion articles, and media interviews. Putting words into action, some communities have started Neighbors Helping Neighbors programs that assist the socially vulnerable in neighborhoods.
- Enact Pro-Connection Policies – Northeastern University Professor Daniel Aldrich, an expert on social capital, recommends tools such as time banking and community currency to get people civically engaged. People who agree to volunteer in the community are rewarded with vouchers that they can spend in local stores.
- Start Conversations – Social media has tremendous value for connecting with community members, but it should be used to bring people together and further conversations about emergency preparedness face-to-face. As mentioned, peer households can positively influence other families’ disaster preparedness.
- Strengthen Social Infrastructure – Find ways to link to existing groups in the area (e.g., social clubs, fraternal organizations, church groups) and help them strengthen their bonds while building bridges between different groups. Community social events can also help reach people who do not feel connected to their communities.
In conclusion, being socially isolated and civically disengaged makes these members of communities among the most vulnerable to disaster. Until there are better methods for identifying and reaching out to them, they may be overlooked in emergency planning and recovery efforts. It may be up to emergency management professionals to raise concern about social disengagement and start promoting the value of social capital for their communities.
Dr. George Schwartz is an associate professor at Immaculata University and has been the director of the bachelor’s degree in Emergency Planning & Management program since 2014. He is also a retired senior Army officer with more than 30 years of service overseas and in the homeland, including leading National Guard units during domestic response operations.