How lonely have people become during the coronavirus pandemic?

Hi, this is Daniela. I am responsible for the administrative side and everything organizational at Datawrapper. Last week, our new Head of Design David wrote about working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, and how it feels not to have met his new colleagues. Reading it, I wondered what effect the contact restrictions have on us humans. So this week, I take a closer look at the topic of loneliness during the health crisis. After all, chronic loneliness is dangerous: it can be the cause of many other mental and physical illnesses.

Do we feel more lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic? I found the answer in a study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). For their SOEP CoV Study, they asked more than 3,000 German citizens between April and June of this year about their professional and family situation as well as their health:

The loneliness-index

Loneliness describes the discrepancy between desired and actually existing social relationships and is therefore subjective. To make it measurable anyways, the researchers developed a so-called loneliness index.

They asked their respondents three questions about their loneliness which they should answer on a five-level scale (“never” = 0 to “very often” = 4):

  1. How often do you feel you lack the company of others?
  2. How often do you have the feeling of being left out?
  3. How often do you have the feeling of being socially isolated?

Then the researchers summed up the answers to get a loneliness index between 0 and 12 for each person, where higher values signal greater loneliness. Since the DIW did a similar study in 2017, they could compare the loneliness of their participants from back then with the one from this year.

I was interested in the difference according to age, so I contacted Dr. Theresa Entringer from the DIW. She kindly provided me with the data:

If you’re wondering about the grey ranges: They indicate the 95% confidence interval, i.e. the uncertainty of the estimate. Dr. Theresa Entringer told me that “the mean value lies within this range with 95% probability.” The greater uncertainty in 2020 is due to the number of people surveyed: while the DIW asked around 21,700 people in 2017, they only asked approx. 3,500 people in 2020.

So what can we see? Compared to 2017, people living in Germany felt far more lonely across all age groups during the crisis. While Germans were not very lonely in 2017 (the index is about 3), this value increased by more than 2 points on average. The study states that “a person who is lonely on average in April 2020 would have been one of the 15 percent of the loneliest people in Germany before COVID-19 in 2017”.

I had assumed that older people tend to feel particularly lonely. Interestingly enough, the opposite picture emerges during the crisis. Younger people in particular stated that they were lonely and suffered from less social relationships.

Social distancing

But how much less did people actually meet during the past few months? The Corona Study conducted by the University of Mannheim, which numbers David already used in his article last week, helps us to answer this question. They ask around 500 Germans daily about how often they casually met with friends, relatives, or work colleagues in the past seven days:

We can see that social contacts went down at the beginning of the lockdown in March. Shortly before the coronavirus crisis, 85% of the population met with friends, relatives, or work colleagues outside of work at least once a week. This figure was just under 30% during the lockdown. In the past few weeks, however, social contacts increased steadily. These days, friends and relatives in Germany meet as frequently as before the COVID-19 pandemic.

I assume that the Germans’ feeling of loneliness has also decreased again in the meantime. Future surveys will show whether the increase in loneliness will lead to further mental illness in the long term, or whether the lifting of the contact restrictions will bring us back to a before-corona level.

And here’s an important side note: Although loneliness has increased during the pandemic, other indicators of psychological stress (life satisfaction, emotional well-being, and symptoms of depression and anxiety) have remained unchanged to date. Overall, the results of the SOEP CoV study show that Germans have coped better than expected during the lockdown. People show a strong resilience. It lets me look positively into the future.

Thanks for reading! If you have feedback or questions, let me know in the comments below. And as always, you can go directly into the creation process of these charts: Hover over them and then click “Edit this chart” in the top right. We’ll see you next week!