ISLAMABAD: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced the ‘Commission on Social Connection’ to address loneliness as a pressing health threat, promote social connection as a priority, and accelerate the scaling up of solutions.

Senior Pakistani Advocate and Human Rights Defender Hina Jillani has also been nominated as one of the 11 commissioners from across the globe.

The commission supported by a secretariat based at WHO will hold its first leadership-level meeting on Dec 6-8. The first major output will be a flagship report released by the mid-point of the three-year initiative.

Speaking to Dawn, Ms Jillani said, “It has been observed that people, families and even communities are being isolated because of the social media networks. The physical interaction has been reducing day by day. There is a need to find a solution to the issue.”

Rights activist Hina Jillani nominated as member of ‘Commission on Social Connection’

She said, “In countries like Pakistan, there is an issue that the younger people are migrating to the developed countries due to which their parents will be left alone and will face a severe kind of isolation.”

“On the other hand, young people and children get so much involved in social media that they do not have physical contact with other members of the area and society. The committee has been mandated to find out mental health issues because of the isolation and its solution,” she said.

According to Hina Jillani, the committee will look into the environment of the communities and will find a way to socialise people again as they were in the past before internet-based social networks. “We have got three years to find and address the issue and time to time submit reports,” she said.

According to a statement, co-chaired by US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy and African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba, the commission consists of 11 members.

Three years tenure

Running for three years, it will analyse the central role social connection plays in improving health for people of all ages and outline solutions to build social connections at scale. The commission will consider how connection enhances the well-being of communities and societies and helps foster economic progress, social development and innovation.

Social isolation – having an insufficient number of social connections, and loneliness – and the social pain of not feeling connected, are widespread. Contrary to the perception that isolation and loneliness primarily affect older people in high-income countries, they impact the health and well-being of all age groups across the world.

One in four older people experience social isolation and the rates are broadly similar in all regions. Among adolescents, between 5–15pc experience loneliness, according to research findings. However, these figures are likely to be underestimations.

“High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences for health and wellbeing. People without enough strong social connections are at higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide and more,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“This WHO commission will help establish social connection as a global health priority and share the most promising interventions.”

11 commissioners also include Japan’s loneliness minister Ayuko Kato, Minister of Health and Social Protection Morocco Khalid Ait Taleb, Sweden’s Minister for Health and Social Affairs Jakob Forssmed, Chile’s Minister of Health Ximena Aguilera Sanhueza, Permanent Representative to the UN from Kenya Cleopa Mailu, Minister of Climate Change Vanuatu Ralph Regenvanu, Deaf Blind Advocate and Activist of United States Haben Girma and United States Google Chief Health Officer Karen Desalvo.

According to the statement, the lack of social connection carries an equivalent, or even greater, risk of early death as other better-known risk factors – such as smoking, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, obesity, and air pollution. Social isolation also has a serious impact on physical and mental health; studies show that it has been linked to anxiety and depression and can increase risk of cardiovascular disease by 30pc.

The new WHO commission will define a global agenda on social connection; raising awareness and building collaborations that will drive evidence-based solutions for countries, communities and individuals. This agenda has particular significance at this time, given how the Covid-19 pandemic and its social and economic repercussions undermined social connections.

“I am thrilled to work closely with an outstanding group of commissioners on advancing social connection – a vital component of well-being. Together, we can build a world that is less lonely, healthier, and more resilient,” said Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy.

“Young people are not immune to loneliness. Social isolation can affect anyone, of any age, anywhere,” said Chido Mpemba, African Union Youth envoy. “Across Africa and beyond, we must redefine the narrative around loneliness. Investments in social connection are critical to creating productive, resilient and stable economies that promote the well-being of current and future generations.”

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2023

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