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Singapore raised its coronavirus outbreak alert to orange, sparking panic and shortages of essential items like toilet paper, on February 8, 2020.
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“Our new life of isolation”: 5 people across the world on staying inside to avoid Covid-19

People in Iran, China, Italy, Singapore, and South Korea describe the anxiety and boredom of life under isolation measures.

As the coronavirus continues to spread to more countries, and outbreaks accelerate in places like Germany and France, people around the world are staying inside.

Thousands who live in areas with major outbreaks, or who have tested positive for the Covid-19 disease, have been put in quarantine or isolation. Millions of others who live in countries where coronavirus has spread are avoiding crowds or not leaving their homes in order to reduce the risk of contracting the disease. They are stocking up on food and hand sanitizer. They are hunkering down, turning to the television and internet to pass the time as they wait out the crisis.

Public health experts, including officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasize the importance of choosing to stay home, especially if you feel sick.

It’s not just for personal safety. Staying home reduces the risk to others, especially the most vulnerable: “your elderly neighbors, your neighbors who work at hospitals, your neighbors with chronic illnesses, and your neighbors who may not have the means or the time to prepare because of lack of resources or time,” as Zeynep Tufekci put it in Scientific American.

We spoke to people in five different countries: from China, where people in Wuhan have been living largely inside their homes for more than a month, to Singapore, where people are required to take their temperature before and after they leave school or work. People around the globe are taking the threat of this disease seriously. Here are their stories of enduring the outbreak.

Cheng Li, 65, retired librarian in Wuhan, China

We first heard the term “pneumonia of unknown cause” around December 30. There was chatter on WeChat of the number of people that had been infected, and I immediately thought “SARS.” But my heart sank even further when I learned that it wasn’t SARS, but a new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that can be transmitted from person to person, with high infection and lethality rates. I knew that this was going to be something big.

After the Wuhan municipal government decided to shut down all transportation on January 23, a mere two days before the Lunar New Year, my husband and I canceled all of our celebratory plans. This was the first year in all my 65 years that I didn’t spend the New Year with family. Not long after the holiday, daily necessities like masks and disinfectants started becoming scarce in stores. Soon, stores were closed altogether. As more people became infected, government measures became stricter. I was no longer able to go out and walk our mini schnauzer. We abided and stayed inside.

Cheng Li in Wuhan, China, has been at home for more than 40 days.
Courtesy of Cheng Li
A view of Wuhan, with the Yangtze River in the foreground, on March 4, 2020. Flights, trains, and public transport, including buses, subways, and ferries, have been out of service for weeks.
Getty Images

We have been at home for more than 40 days now. At first, I vacillated between worried and bored. But then I gradually adapted to our new life of isolation and learned to entertain myself. I wrote in my journal, I sketched pictures, and I learned to make a whole array of pastries, like rose-shaped steamed buns and scallion pancakes with beef.

Although life is a bit more inconvenient than normal, we no longer worry about the day-to-day. Our community leader coordinates with local supermarkets to ensure every household has enough food and supplies. When the coronavirus outbreak first started, our community faced each other with panic and fear; now we are calm, encouraging each other to stay positive through WeChat.

Wuhan is a gem, known for its economy, culture, science, and technology, and it is also where I have lived my entire life. Sadly, it may take a while for the city to bounce back. But I know that as soon as the lockdown is lifted, I’ll return to enjoying all it has to offer — strolling the streets and shops, and eating re gan mian, doupi, and lotus dishes sourced straight from East Lake.

Every day, I watch the news and feel increasingly hopeful as the number of cases decreases. In a time of such uncertainty, it’s comforting to know that we have done everything we can to help control the epidemic. It even makes being quarantined at home feel worth it.

—As told to and translated by Alicia Lu. Li’s name was changed to protect her privacy.

Luciana Grosso, 39, journalist in Lodi, Italy

I wake up on the fifth day of my isolation, and my first thought is the thing I would like most in the world is to have breakfast in my favorite bar. Immediately, I remember that I cannot. It is closed — almost all the bars are. I get up, make coffee by myself, and wonder when I’ll finally get to go back.

The city where I live, Lodi, is in the “yellow zone” for coronavirus risk, an area of alert but not of complete isolation. The streets are open, but nobody is outside: Schools and offices are closed, streets are deserted, and there is a curfew at 6 pm. The silence out here feels unreal.

Meanwhile, the “red zone,” 10 kilometers from here, is completely quarantined: 10 small country villages — 50,000 inhabitants overall, in the deep Lombardian countryside — have been closed by the army that inhibit entrance and exit. Nobody can move from there, and every activity has been suspended: no schools, no meetings, no carnival, no public events. Also, Sunday Mass has been banned, the bishop arranging to livestream it on the internet.

Lodi, Italy, is on high alert but not fully quarantined.
Courtesy of Luciana Grosso
Luciana Grosso at the red zone “border” in Lodi.
Courtesy of Federico Gaudenzi

At first, I have to admit that the coronavirus story felt sort of amusing to many of us. A tiny part of my brain thought it was like playing The Walking Dead (“Can I be Negan?” I would say to my friends). But then the hours have passed, the alert has grown, the cases multiplied, and The Walking Dead fantasy stopped being fun. The real fear and the paranoia started to spread around: All of us know someone who has been put in medical quarantine, who has been hospitalized, or who has been tested and is waiting for the results. Now we are just looking for a way to pass the time. Those who can work from home; those who cannot are simply doing nothing.

I call Gianfranco, a friend of mine who lives in Bertonico, which is inside the red zone. He sounds calm, but he tells me that things inside the red zone are surreal: “They have closed us here and just told us to wait. We feel bored, but we try not to get caught up in hysteria. The ones who can go out to take a walk or to the grocery store, even if it is not easy, because no more than 40 people at a time are allowed to enter, to avoid gatherings. Some pharmacies have started to ban the access and to serve the customers by a small window. The sooner it ends, the better it is.”

I decide to take the car and go to the “border” of a red zone country town called Castiglione d’Adda, which has 4,600 inhabitants and is surrounded by cultivated fields. I see an elderly couple taking a walk. We talk to each other yelling across the border, under the surveillance of police, who are posted up at checkpoints. “To us, quarantine or non-quarantine, nothing changes,” they tell me.

The youngest, on the contrary, are the ones in real trouble, says Sara, a 15-year-old girl I met near the border. Kept home from school, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, they are left alone with Netflix, social networks, and some extra homework. “Me and my friends have created a new WhatsApp group,” Sarah told me. “We have called it ‘Fuck Covid.’ It is a good name, don’t you think?”

Yes, I tell her. It’s a great name.

Mac Schwerin, 31, writer in Singapore

My workday begins with a temperature check to the forehead using one of those infrared sensor guns that beep when you pull the trigger. I’m told anything above 37.5 degrees Celsius means trouble.

I live in Singapore, where coronavirus surfaced soon after escaping China. We had our first confirmed case in late January and our first case by local transmission a couple weeks later; after that, the government declared Code Orange and began implementing more serious containment measures.

It sounds like martial law, but it wasn’t a big deal. Some ministers went on Channel 5 to calm people down, and the Straits Times, another unofficial organ of the state, ran considered, anti-sensationalist coverage. The guidelines put into effect were modest. My office, like all offices, was encouraged (or perhaps required; it can be hard to tell in Singapore) to screen employees at the start and close of business. So now every day, I beep myself and record the temperature on a hard copy list, which may or may not find its way to some bottomless spreadsheet in the cloud.

The Central Business District in Singapore on February 28, 2020.
Ore Huiying/Getty Images
People stocking up on necessities in Singapore on February 9, 2020.
Ore Huiying/Getty Images

In public, thermal readers have been placed at checkpoints to high-traffic areas. They feature fixed cameras that pick up your heat signature and display it on monitors manned by bored-looking bureaucrats. It is impossible to walk past one of these stations, as I do several times a day, without worrying an alarm will go off and a cage will suddenly drop from above, like in that game Mouse Trap.

Bigger institutions lean more cautious. An acquaintance who’s doing a semester abroad at a local university has had most of her classes made remote. When she does go in, the school instructs everyone to sit at least one desk apart.

Singapore has mounted an effective response to the virus in much the same way it tackles every issue of governance: behind closed doors, with a blend of brilliant technocratic precision and blunt authoritarian resolve. One of the government’s strongest tools has been a sophisticated method of contact tracing, whereby Ministry of Health members work with police to identify likely cases before they emerge.

Investigators comb through records, cue up CCTV footage, and generally focus the lens of state surveillance on individuals who may (or may not) be unwitting vectors of the illness. Their approach has made Singapore among the safest ports in this storm. It sounds great — but then again, I’ve never gotten a phone call.

Daniel Oh, 17, high school student in Seoul, South Korea

I am a high school senior living in Seoul, South Korea. As a response to coronavirus, the Korean government has shut down my school. Events I was looking forward to have also been canceled, including music festivals, debate competitions, and sporting events. I take classes online on voice chat platforms with my teachers and peers. Teachers have been assigning more homework online due to the limitations of not having a physical classroom in place of proper lessons.

Daniel Oh, a high school senior living in Seoul, South Korea, spends his days indoors “watching unhealthy amounts of YouTube.”
Courtesy of Daniel Oh

My church has also closed in-person services and moved to online streaming. Every Sunday morning, our family casts the YouTube stream onto our TV. It’s been a strange feeling to worship at home, but I’ve been trying vigilantly to keep my spirits up.

I spend most of my days at home completing schoolwork, watching YouTube, and sleeping. My life has always been driven by habit, and without the rhythm of school and church to bring me out of the house, I often feel lethargic or restless. Thankfully, our district hasn’t had enough cases to warrant total closure or self-quarantine, so I try to head outside a few times a week to play basketball or buy a drink. I’ve begun to pick up some old hobbies, such as coding and writing, to break up my gray, monotonous existence.

When I do head outside, the effect of the virus is immediately felt even in this small district. All of the shops and restaurants are eerily quiet. People stare and try to pass you quickly if you don’t wear a mask. The subway and buses are empty even during rush hour. Combined with the upcoming elections, the atmosphere of the nation is so heavy, I feel I will suffocate.

I have faith that coronavirus will come to pass, as all epidemics do. I’m proud of my nation for being so active in trying to contain and cure the virus. I’ve also started to adjust well to my life at home. But I won’t lie and pretend that life is easier being at home all of the time. I would much rather be going to school, enjoying my last year of high school and creating wonderful memories, than be holed up in my room watching unhealthy amounts of YouTube.

Ali Mollasalehi, 26, entertainment journalist in Tehran, Iran

There is no official quarantine in Tehran or any major city in Iran, but the government is doing almost anything to limit people from leaving their homes. All movie theaters, schools, and universities are closed. The rising number of infected and dead people is making everybody worried, and therefore a lot of families (including mine) have imposed self-quarantine.

It’s just 15 days to Persian New Year (Nowruz). At this time of the year, everybody is usually shopping and getting ready to celebrate. All of that is now under a huge shadow of fear of coronavirus. Shops are nearly empty, making the bad economy even worse.

Ali Mollasalehi, who lives in Tehran, passes his time on social media and watching movies.
Courtesy of Ali Mollasalehi

A lot of people don’t trust the government’s statements. Conversation, videos, and the reported numbers coming out of social media just make us more worried. On Twitter, people claim that Iranian officials don’t have enough resources to quarantine any city, even the religious city of Qom, where the outbreak started in Iran.

The boredom makes you overthink, and the distrust between people and government isn’t helping. Nobody can say that the outbreak is under control. Meanwhile, it’s spreading to New York, Belarus, and New Zealand! There are shortages of test kits, especially in smaller cities, which makes the situation worse. Like all around the world, there is a shortage of masks and hand sanitizers in pharmacies. My hand sanitizer was one of the few left in that pharmacy.

But in quarantine, everybody is trying to keep the morale up. My father is reading history books, particularly about past plagues. I, on other hand, am trying to take it easy, watching films like The Big Lebowski. Stay away from watching Contagion, dude!

Although social networks are the source of many fake claims, others are using it to try to cheer each other up. One of my friends last night posted a photo of her singing beautifully on Instagram. Doctors and nurses are making viral videos of themselves dancing in their hazmat suits. We are trying to make light of the horror that is upon us.

As we try to avoid contact as much as we can, we pray and hope that the warmer weather will destroy the virus.

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