Graphic from DataHaven Community Wellbeing Index 2019

As COVID-19 curves start to tip downwards, Connecticut residents are finally daring to imagine what life will be like over the next few years, and how to improve it.

In Connecticut alone, social distancing has saved at least 14,000 lives between mid-March and mid-May, according to a DataHaven analysis, and hospitalizations are now declining in many areas across the state.

While we praise our neighbors and front line workers for their actions and sacrifices to help achieve these outcomes, we must also recognize the growing toll of the pandemic on our collective happiness. Unemployment is at record highs. Families are struggling to pay rent, buy food, and care for children. People have been cut off from the family members, schools, churches, senior centers, and routine medical appointments that they rely on and enjoy.

We know that having a job, food, and a roof over one’s head—and trustworthy and supportive families, neighbors, and government institutions—gives a huge boost to personal well-being and life satisfaction, based on data collected recently through the DataHaven Community Wellbeing Survey’s live interviews with over 32,000 individuals across Connecticut. The pandemic has disrupted all of these aspects of life, and simply reducing social distancing restrictions will not be enough to undo the damage.

A recent report by the Robert Graham Center found that stressors experienced during the pandemic —particularly unemployment— are amplified because they’re happening in social isolation, when some people are at their most vulnerable. A United Nations policy brief noted that 45 percent of the general population in the United States has been distressed since the start of the pandemic, with similar numbers reported in other nations, yet countries spend only about two percent of their annual health budgets on mental health.

Policymakers now face the task of implementing policies that will improve quality of life for everyone. The Robert Graham Center suggests that such policies must include supporting ways to keep people connected virtually, improving physical and mental health resources, and reducing uncertainty through clear messaging about what emerging from the pandemic will entail. These strategies actively target the consequences of social distancing, rather than assuming that slightly loosened restrictions will automatically restore well-being.

Comprehensive and well-calibrated metrics based on large-scale, representative well-being surveys allow policy makers to see how policies impact the population as a whole. For instance, a team at the London School of Economics calculated a metric called “well-being-years,” and recently compared the effects of various social distancing restrictions on well-being across the United Kingdom. This approach compares trade-offs of various policies and suggests which policies might improve well-being the most at the community level.

The potential loss of well-being-years due to premature deaths from COVID-19 are appalling enough on their own, with tens of thousands of individuals dying around 10 years prematurely on average. But in their analysis, when a person is unemployed for a year, not only do they lose 0.7 well-being-years, but their community suffers a loss due to the increased anxiety of potential layoffs. Each additional year someone is unemployed creates a loss of 2.1 well-being-years across that person’s community. As unemployment persists for millions of people, the lost years of well-being add up to a catastrophic number. Each month of school closures reduces the UK’s collective quality of life by 52,000 well-being-years.

In Connecticut, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Employment has a particularly out-sized impact on our happiness because of the unique way our country links health insurance coverage to employment, and because of our relatively limited safety net for families that suffer a sudden loss of income. Communities face different challenges to their quality of life, and the pandemic has amplified the disparities that already existed before the outbreak began.

COVID-19 has hit harder among people experiencing housing or food insecurity, people of color, and people who already experienced discrimination in health care, housing, employment, and policing. We can’t base recovery policies on statewide averages; however, localized data can point the way to a more prosperous state by revealing how the most equitable outcomes can be achieved.

In making reopening decisions, policymakers have naturally sought the advice of epidemiologists and economists. However, mental health and well-being tend to be measured separately when evaluating health outcomes, and key supports of well-being, such as community cohesion, civic and cultural engagement, and social support must be part of the equation as well if we want to address the fuller extent of human suffering the pandemic has wrought.

We’re still not ready to return to a life of crowded streets, bustling restaurants and packed stadiums. Health experts and economists unanimously warn that reopening too quickly can set us back even further. But we can start building the capacity to support broader well-being in the midst of the pandemic and beyond. We can expand our thinking about what recovery looks like to include mental health, equity and social cohesion considerations in policy decisions now — creating a solid foundation for the day the scales tip, and we can all participate in society again.

Perhaps we can make a better society than the one we left behind.

Aparna Nathan is Research Assistant and Mark Abraham is Executive Director of DataHaven, a New Haven-based non-profit organization with a 25-year history of public service to Connecticut communities. Its mission is to empower people to create thriving communities by collecting and ensuring access to data on well-being, equity, and quality of life.

These past analyses by Data Haven all make use of the organization’s Community Well-being Survey:

Leave a comment