How to Prepare for a Coronavirus Lockdown
With outbreaks worldwide, the prospect of quarantine looms. Here are some tips for surviving it.
You’re stuck at home. You’ve been at home for three weeks, with only one of your household allowed out every two days to make a trip to the supermarket through empty streets. The number of infected people near you keeps going up. You miss the gym. You even miss the office.
It’s an experience that has already become drearily familiar to hundreds of millions of people in China—and one that could be heading the rest of the world’s way very soon. To be sure, very few places outside of the Chinese mainland have seen real outbreaks of the coronavirus so far, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is already warning that the virus’s spread in the United States is “inevitable.”
While draconian measures of the Chinese scale may not play in democracies, South Korea has already implemented voluntary restrictions, and Italy has put a cordon sanitaire around infected towns. Even if you’re not sealed into a residential compound as many Chinese families have been, public spaces may become de facto no-go zones, with offices, factories, and schools shuttered.
So how can you best prepare for weeks of being cut off from the world? Here are some tips from those who have already been through it in China as to how to psychologically survive quarantine. This isn’t preparation for apocalypse—it’s readying yourself for a stressful and highly inconvenient but temporary experience, concentrating on the psychological experience more than the health side. (For that, read Laurie Garrett’s essential piece on how to stay safe.)
1. Prepare the essentials
Runs on masks have already occurred in many countries, but factories are revving up to meet demand. Buy masks, hand sanitizer, bleach, and gloves—as well as a month, minimum, of any vital household medications. (It’s not clear how much masks actually help outside, but appearing without one in a public space can draw the attention of authorities or public disapproval.) Stock up on painkillers and decongestants. Avoid medications that suppress the immune system, such as prednisone. Smoking and drinking worsen the chance of pneumonia developing; try to give them up as much as you can.
Food shortages have not been a key issue in China, but it can’t hurt to stock a month of nonperishable food. Soups are particularly recommended for variety and ease of preparation if sick, as well as the comfort value. Water is unlikely to be critical, but if you live somewhere without a drinkable tap supply, stock up on a month of bottled water, too. Fresh fruit and vegetables are often the hardest things to get, so buy vitamin tablets, especially a strong supply of vitamin C.
2. All the essentials
The main worry in China for most people hasn’t been running out of food or water—which government agencies prioritize supplying. It has been a lack of other household necessities, especially things like toothpaste and shampoo. “Don’t worry about the stuff you would get from the supermarket,” commented one British national under lockdown in China. “Worry about the things you’d get from the 7/11 at 10 p.m.” Runs on goods in Hong Kong and Italy have also stripped shelves bare of toilet paper, where the supply chain is particularly vulnerable. If you have animals at home, pet food and fresh litter are essential.
Several quarantined people mentioned really missing treats—especially feeling an overwhelming longing for a particular snack—and suggested stocking up on chocolate and candy. (My father once got himself caught outside in a typhoon in Hong Kong due to his overwhelming desire for a packet of Garibaldi biscuits. Don’t go that far.)
3. Don’t get caught out of place
The lockdown has been particularly devastating in China for the tens of millions of people who were visiting family during the Lunar New Year and have ended up stranded for weeks far from their own homes. Some migrant workers were left homeless, caught in the middle of travel when the quarantines came down and forced onto the streets. Other people have been forced to rely on the generosity of friends or strangers.
Foreigners have often had to apply for special permission to extend visas. Minimize nonessential travel, especially across borders, if the spread of the virus continues—and take extra luggage (and emergency cash) to prepare for the possibility of being stuck abroad for weeks longer than expected.
4. Prepare financially
Small and medium-sized businesses in China are on the edge of collapse. And while firms have been paying out salaries—under pressure from the government—even to those who can’t work, many people in the gig economy have been out of luck. Start thinking now about what a month of no or reduced income would mean to you—and preparing to move as much of your work life online as possible. That goes double if your business depends on public spaces, especially restaurants.
5. Build routines and a life online
“For me, it began as a panic, with a giddy Joker/Masque of the Red Death vision of everyone dying. That passed into resentment and anger about the restrictions on movement and gatherings. And that faded to boredom but then to a sort of comfort with the new routines,” said Adam Robbins, an American locked down in Shenzhen. That emotional rollercoaster has been shared by a lot of people, some more severely stricken than others. “I have severe anxiety and depression,” commented another foreigner, who asked for anonymity. “Fortunately, I had medication, but it was the worst possible conditions. Thankfully, my therapist offers online sessions.”
Everybody I talked to spoke of the importance of building new routines—both for hygiene purposes against the virus and for psychological survival. “It’s important to have a lot of routines that run parallel to the dystopian routine of dealing with the disease,” advised Matthew Stinson, under lockdown in Tianjin. Many people praised video games, with their addictive and time-killing properties, and board games that could be played with two people or with children. Cooking, looking after plants, and pets have also proved lifesavers—one suggestion was to start a garden of microgreens.
If you don’t already, make sure you can bank, shop, work, and educate your kids online as much as possible. China has already switched to online classes. Arrange to see friends for online activities, whether games or just chatting. Be prepared, though—online services in China have suffered severe overload as a result of user numbers exploding.
Natural homebodies have an easier time with the lockdown than exercise enthusiasts—especially with gyms closed and running impossible. Build an exercise area at home if you have the space; shift forward buying that elliptical or exercise bike you’ve been thinking of getting.
6. Get ready for a lot of time with the kids
“Don’t have kids” was the blunt advice offered by one Chinese husband, who has been under lockdown with his wife and 2-year-old son in a one-bedroom apartment since late January. If you’ve already failed to heed that warning, make the same kinds of preparations you would for a long journey with small children. A really, really, really long journey. Parents advised, in particular, clearing a space for physical exercise and doing regular games—not just to alleviate boredom but to tire them out.
Lyman Stone, an American dealing with children stuck at home thanks to the school closures in Hong Kong, had particularly good advice. “Major recommendation: find sunlight. If you can leave the building and play in a common space do it. If you can go to a park do it. If you can only sit on a balcony do that.” He also recommended “unusual lessons. Give your kids lessons in things you love but that aren’t school curriculum,” such as singing or cooking.
Even if you’re not under quarantine, school closures are one of the most likely effects of the virus spreading. With teenagers, expect the same issues as with adults but even more intense. “There’s a lot of temper tantrums, even from the 16-year-olds,” one weary parent said. And if you don’t have kids—don’t expect any fun adult pastimes. As one woman confessed, “There is nothing less sexy than being stuck in a one-room apartment with your partner for a month.”
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer