How to Cope and Survive the COVID-19 Quarantine

Posted on: March 25th, 2020 at 5:12 am by

Photo: Karlin Chan

As most of us brace for an indefinite amount of time social distancing, quarantining, self-isolating or in a “shelter-in-place” situation, the question for many of us isn’t only, “How do I survive Covid-19?” but also, “How do I survive being trapped indoors with the people I love without completely and utterly losing my mind?”

Sure, you can stash away a secret bag of Cadbury mini eggs and crawl into a dark recess (closet, under the bed) to eat them in a few glorious moments of solitude. But let’s face it, that bag of chocolate will run dry (like every other snack in your cupboard). So unless you have Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, you’re going to need some coping strategies when dealing with people in close quarters. Because the traits you once found endearing in another could very well grate on your soul by the end of all of this. (Divorce lawyers at the ready!)

We have some rudimentary ideas on survival: pretend you didn’t read the same coronavirus coverage as everyone else in your house (“No, I didn’t see the update that posted five minutes ago!”), get really into chores, mandate playing the “quiet game” several times a day. This is not enough, though, so we thought it prudent to ask someone who recently experienced quarantine life abroad – how they survived, and came out of it more or less mentally intact.

Jane Fulbrook is a real life superhero who works for the UK’s Foreign Office. A few weeks ago, she was part of a small team that went directly into Covid-19’s ground zero – the Hubei province of Wuhan – to help extract stranded British Nationals. After the successful mission, she returned to the UK briefly and was quarantined. Fast forward a few weeks. Upon her return to China, she found out that the country changed its criteria for re-entry and that she would be quarantined again. We thought there was nobody better to query for survival tips.

Bowery Boogie: What are some self preservation tactics to use when quarantined with another human?

Jane Fulbrook: My other humans are 15 and 11, and they are adorable. I love them with all my heart and soul. But they are free spirits who don’t do particularly well when their wings are clipped. My 15-year-old is fiercely independent and was most miffed when I stopped her from travelling around the city on public transport. My 11-year-old is remarkably similar to a very cute, but very excitable, puppy in so many ways. She is gorgeous and I want to hug her and play games with her all the time. She’s a ginormous distraction when I’m trying to get on with work. But she also needs walking several times a day or she goes a bit nuts.

I know that we are luckier than some. We have a three bedroom apartment, so we can all go off and have our own space when we need it. But tensions rose when we suddenly realised that there weren’t enough chargers to service the ridiculous amount of tech we seem to have amassed, all of which was suddenly vital when we were shut in. Minor amounts of blood were shed over chargers. Think Game of Thrones, only a little more violent.

My self preservation tactic was self righteous self sacrifice – I put myself last in the queue for the chargers. And tried to make sure that they knew I was taking the moral high ground. This made me feel superior and good about myself. I doubt they noticed to be honest.

On a more positive note, we made sure that we snuggled up together every evening to Netflix binge our favourite show of the moment (Scorpion, we got through 4 series). I also helped them with homework, realising in the process how amazingly clever they both are and actually getting to see in more detail what they’re learning.

BB: Is it suitable to wear headphones to, for lack of a better word, escape from the other person during the day?

JF: My 11-year-old constantly hijacks my Spotify. As a direct consequence, my end-of-the-year “hey Spotify user, here is some great stuff we are recommending related to everything you’ve been listening to” message was so embarrassing I had to try and hide it from the prying eyes of others. Despite many, many messages of encouragement, I don’t really want to download the latest from Shawn Mendes and Camilo Cabello. Truly, thanks Spotify, but no thanks.

But the great news is that my 15-year-old has excellent taste in music. Her current obsession is 90s grunge; we have tickets to see Pearl Jam in Hyde Park in the summer. I am more than happy to share the speakers with her. So we pack the little one off to her room and give her a pair of headphones.

BB: Is the internet a blessing or a curse in a quarantine situation – would it be better to follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond?

JF: Can you even imagine doing this without internet? I mean seriously, can you imagine? I love the idea of Walden Pond. I’m 100% behind getting closer to nature and trying to live without, in theory. But I have enough self-awareness to realise that this would be entirely unsustainable for me personally for longer than a few days. I need people and stuff. I definitely need Google and Netflix.

I’m also now working remotely and grateful beyond words for the modern world that allows me to do so.

However … a huge problem with easy access to knowledge and 24/7 news… is easy access to knowledge and 24/7 news. It’s way too easy to become completely obsessed with news. I find myself constantly monitoring social media groups and news websites for updates. And there is an absolute tsunami of info out there. And it keeps on coming. It has quickly become an unhealthy obsession and I need to cut it out. Social media support groups can be a useful source of information, but they are also an unhealthy source of disinformation. Everyone is suddenly an armchair expert.  So, don’t take my internet away, but maybe teach me a bit of self-limitation.

BB: What is the best advice you can give those of us in the US who are in the beginning stages of self-isolation?

JF: It’s so easy to get carried away on a tidal wave of information and descend into mild panic. Slow down on obsessing on news updates and numbers; don’t offer helpful advice unless it actually is helpful; adhere to advice about keeping your distance from one another, as this appears to work. At least in the short term.

This virus is something of an equaliser – most people are in the same boat, and we need to look out for one another. Yes, it seems to be true that most of us will only have mild symptoms. But some of us won’t. Some of us are more vulnerable and susceptible, and the kind thing to do is to look out for one another. It would be arrogant to make some kind of statement that implies that this won’t have a huge knock on effect. These acts of kindness undoubtedly come at a huge social cost for many, but they appear to be necessary for now. And ultimately, we are being asked to spend a bit more time alone, by ourselves or with others.

The other obvious answer is to make sure you aren’t short of chargers.

BB: Weirdest thing you’ve done in quarantine?

JF: The very wise Mr. Thoreau says in his book that “the highest form of self-restraint is when one can subsist not on other animals, but of plants and crops cultivated from the earth.”

I was sent a really great infographic from a local Beijing Field studies group about growing vegetables from scraps. Basically taking the roots and skewering them with cocktail sticks, and then sitting them in a glass of water. So far, my carrot hasn’t grown, despite all my encouragement. It may be because carrots from the supermarket don’t actually have roots. When I was growing up, there was an excellent British sitcom called The Good Life. Tom Good, a 40 year old designer, has a mid-life crisis and attempts to escape modern life by becoming completely self sufficient in his London suburb home. I am currently trying to model myself on his long suffering, but entirely pragmatic wife, Barbara, but I think if I have to wait for this carrot to grow it might not end well.

BB: Any book/movies/series recommendations while we’re in lockdown?

JF: When I was in complete isolation during my second stint of quarantine, stuck in a room with increasingly annoying yellow wallpaper, I read a short story by American feminist writer Charlotte Perkins-Gilman called The Yellow Wallpaper.

BB: So, you doubled down.

JF: It seemed entirely appropriate and was worryingly relatable during that particular period. Movies and series – already mentioned Scorpion – I’ve just finished watching the first series of Italian crime drama Gomorrah which was excellent. At the start of all this, I re-read The Stand by Stephen King, just as reference material. I also watched Outbreak, Contagion, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead. I also started a collaborative Spotify playlist that I’ve been listening to on repeat. Separately, one of my work support groups on social media started a haiku competition. This has been strangely addictive.

Thank you, Jane Fulbrook, for taking the time to chat with us! Check out Jane’s playlist below. 

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