Those alone in isolation plead for ‘lockdown bubble’ rule for one friend

Every day Tonya Scibilia craves the one hour she can leave the house for exercise and make eye contact with other people.

“I know it will be 23 hours before I can do that again,” says Ms Scibilia, who lives alone. “It’s really emotionally tough. I am an extrovert but I think it’s innately human to like to have contact with people and that just ceases.”

Ms Scibilia, who works in HR, thinks the government is doing an exceptional job steering Victoria through the coronavirus crisis. She vigilantly follows the rules. She hasn’t hugged her family since March. She orders her groceries online to minimise her risk of being infected with COVID-19 at the supermarket.

Tonya Scibilia wants to highlight the mental health impact on people living alone during lockdown.Credit:Justin McManus

But she is frustrated that single people are not given the same opportunity to have human interaction as intimate partners who live separately but are permitted to visit one another.

“I am not asking for special treatment,” Ms Scibilia says. “Nor am I suggesting that myself or those in a similar situation are worse off. I just feel like we are not being considered at all at the moment and that’s what is really hard to understand.”

Even at the height of New Zealand’s lockdown, which in some ways was harsher than Melbourne’s stage four restrictions, people who lived alone were allowed to visit or stay at another residence under a so-called "shared bubble" arrangement.

“Specifically, if you live alone and have already established a bubble with another household, this can be maintained so long as both households have no contact with others – that they stay in their joint bubble,” the New Zealand Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said in a media release on April 4.

Ms Scibilia recently wrote to Premier Daniel Andrews, Minister for Mental Health Martin Foley and her local Greens MP Tim Read pointing to the New Zealand measure and calling for the mental health of those who live alone in Australia to similarly be addressed.

“New Zealand acknowledged that those living alone would be significantly impacted from a mental health perspective,” she wrote.

“The ‘bubble’ that New Zealand created for those living alone gave some comfort during the most significant lockdown period by allowing those individuals to be part of a household.”

The Victorian government did not respond to a question about whether it was considering the New Zealand policy.

“While being in quarantine and limiting physical interaction is vital to slowing the spread of the virus, we know it can be difficult for people’s mental health and wellbeing – particularly for those already experiencing mental health conditions,” a Victorian government spokesperson said.

“We’ve invested more than $100 million in additional mental health supports over the last few months to help meet demand and ensure Victorians get the care they need, when they need it but if there’s more to be done – we’ll do it.”

The spokesperson said if people are in isolation on their own they can reach out to Lifeline or Beyond Blue to speak to someone or they can call the government’s coronavirus hotline where volunteers from the Red Cross can connect them with more local supports.

Dr Melissa Hawkins, a professor of public health at American University in Washington DC, said isolation poses serious health risks – both physical and mental –that quarantine bubbles can help alleviate.

“Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for depression and anxiety and can also lead to increases in the risk for serious physical diseases like coronary heart disease, stroke and premature death,” she wrote in The Conversation.

Dr Hawkins said New Zealand’s strategy seemed to have worked and England had also announced a support bubble policy.

“A recent survey of 2500 adults in England and New Zealand found a high degree of support for the policies and a high degree of motivation to comply,” she wrote.

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