Over the past few weeks, at least a third of the world’s population — including all of India, El Salvador, and most US states — have gone into lockdown. Their lives have been marked by ambient anxiety about paying rent and staying healthy, a newfound passion for baking, and — at times — boredom.
Few people are equipped to deal with long-term isolation like this. But while much of the world has only just begun home quarantine, residents of China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Italy, and elsewhere have faced movement restrictions and isolation for multiple months now, some since mid-January. Meanwhile, some immunocompromised Americans have also self-isolated for months to protect themselves. Take it from these folks: While adjusting to a new at-home routine can be incredibly challenging, there are ways to make it work.
Vox spoke with people from across the world who’ve been isolating for months. For those in other countries, many of their anxieties felt different from those facing most Americans, about 12 to 13 percent of which are currently unemployed. Italy, for instance, has frozen layoffs, and South Korea boasts labor laws that make it hard for companies to fire people in large numbers. In much of China, life looked close to normal as far back as late February. Those sorts of protections are not available to the same degree in countries like the U.S.
So it makes sense that the people we talked to discussed playing word-of-the-day games with their kids, streaming live stand-up comedy sessions, and launching Zoom book clubs to pass the time. But they also spoke of the constant struggle of navigating child care and giving yourself space to mess up — Covid-19 is an unprecedented event in our lives, and there’s no one right or wrong way to handle it.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
“Take this day by day”
Miguel Xia, 25, a recent graduate currently in Hangzhou, China
Socially isolating since late January, but restrictions have eased up.
I was first quarantined just a day after the Lunar New Year when I was in Qingtian. On January 25, my family noticed an ambulance outside of our apartment building and a few people suited up in protective clothing. Turns out a lady living on the third floor had come back from Wuhan and had developed symptoms.
When the whole town was eventually put in lockdown, each house was given six passes to go out and get essentials. Each pass allowed a person to leave the neighborhood and go to the nearest supermarkets and back. I chose to let my family use the passes since they really wanted to go out to walk.
Time lost all meaning. I soon started sleeping at 6 am and waking up at 2 pm. I napped a lot, mostly to pass the time. We watched TV and kept up with the news, occasionally playing cards or mahjong. We’d play board games for a few hours, then watch TV, then cook.
The problem is, I actually live in Portugal. I just graduated with an engineering degree and went back to visit my family in Qingtian, outside Hangzhou. My plan was to go back to Portugal in February and then look for jobs in Germany or England. But obviously that didn’t pan out. Around that time, Europe announced that they’re going to cancel all inbound flights from outside of the continent. At the moment, I’ve started to look for potential jobs in China. I’m worried because I don’t have any friends here, and my Chinese language level is like a 6-year-old.
As someone who is still looking for work, my advice for quarantine is to do all the things that you needed to do but never had the time or energy. Organize your home, clean, practice a new language, call those old friends that you haven’t talked to in ages. They might also be in quarantine and be bored as hell, and it’s a good way to feel that everyone is in it together.
I’m a believer that mental health is affected by physical activity. Do something at home to work up a sweat, get the heart rate going. Get as much sun by the window as you can. Fresh air, too. And unlike me, try to keep a normal daily schedule.
I’m not as anxious as I could be about staying here because, in a way, China is a second home. But ultimately, it’s helped me most to accept my situation. I’ve pretty much decided that for the time being, I’m just going to stay here and look for an English-teaching job. I don’t know when I can go home. But focusing on the new reality helps me take this day by day.
“I think about three things I’m grateful for. It sounds really hokey, but after about a month I noticed that I sort of coaxed my brain into a more positive space.”
Nora, 25, an educator based in Beijing (currently in San Jose, California)
Has been socially isolating since late January.
Quarantine measures started in late January in Beijing, around the same time as Chinese New Year. I mostly stayed calm during the first few weeks.
I was used to being really busy, and it was nice to have some time to myself. I wrote, read, and did some painting, but I didn’t force myself to do anything. At night, I would go to my friend’s bar, which was closed to the public, and play games with him and a couple of other people. This was safe to do in Beijing because of the vast infrastructure that could be easily devoted solely to combating the spread of the virus. In order to ride public transport or enter certain public spaces, you have to wear a mask and not be running a fever. A security guard would usually take my temperature when I entered or left my residential compound or went to the store or got on the subway.
Helping others in my circle of friends take care of their mental health felt really good. When I felt worn down after about a month, my friends took care of me. We really banded together and created our own small community where we scheduled coworking days, small outings, or things we could do safely or via Zoom or WeChat calls.
However, I’m now stranded in the US indefinitely because of visa issues. China has closed its borders temporarily to foreign nationals and I’m in the Bay Area. Since people here don’t usually wear a mask and there’s less enforcement of directives, I find that I’m much more worried about actually getting the virus here than I was in Beijing, although I don’t advocate this approach for the US at all. I stay inside much more, and unless I need to go to the consulate or to go on a walk, I try not to leave my friend’s house whom I’m staying with.
Truthfully, I’m really worn down after about nine or 10 weeks of this, to the point that even my panic feels blunted. But what’s been helpful for me is to set up a sort of skeleton of a schedule, and then if I deviate from it, I don’t really punish myself for it.
I make sure to stay hydrated by drinking lots of hot water with lemon; the minor prep that goes into it keeps me grounded. My friend I’m staying with started a quarantine book club — we’re going to have a meeting on Zoom in a couple of days. I paint a lot more, and I listen to music to process my emotions.
Last year, before this virus, I started doing this thing where once a day I think about three things I’m grateful for. It sounds really hokey, but after about a month, I noticed that I sort of coaxed my brain into a more positive space. I still do it now and I think it’s been really helpful even despite my anxiety and a deeper preoccupation with illness and death. Once a day, I try to set aside some time to think about at least two people I know and think about what I appreciate and miss about them. Sometimes I tell them as much, sometimes I don’t. When and if I get to see my friends again, I will hug them very, very tightly, provided it’s safe to.
“My biggest piece of advice is to give yourself grace and just keep telling yourself this is not normal. This is a pandemic.”
Julie Cohen, a freelance writer in Sacile, Italy
Socially isolating since late February.
The weekend quarantine started, late February, there was a big Carnevale party. It’s a giant street party, shoulder to shoulder, and then the next day we essentially went on lockdown.
The first two weeks, school wasn’t open, but some restaurants were. My kids still had swim lessons, but they were trying to social distance at the pool. It was these ridiculous half-measures.
Finally, we were put on lockdown, which honestly was a relief. I think everyone was, in a way, like, “Okay, let’s get this moving. Let’s work on fixing this together.”
Now I have good days and bad days. My kids are 3 and 6, so they’re not easy ages. They take a lot of attention. It’s exhausting. My dream wasn’t to be a stay-at-home mom or a homeschooling mom. I don’t feel like I’m the best to give advice on “Try these six crafts.” Sometimes it can feel pretty overwhelming. Yesterday my 3-year-old emptied every single puzzle in the entire house into a laundry basket, like a puzzle soup. It’s just like that all day long.
Meanwhile, I had been trying really hard to keep my daughter up to speed with her Italian first-grade schoolwork, but now it looks like the kids won’t be returning to school this school year, so my drive to keep up with her reading and writing in Italian is getting less and less.
When I am looking for things to do or seeing what these other people are doing, I can start comparing myself and then I’m like, “Oh, why am I not great at managing my kids?” and, “Why are my kids not as independent?”
But I think that is just not helpful. If anything, my biggest piece of advice is to give yourself grace and just keep telling yourself this is not normal. This is a pandemic. Yes, we want to educate our kids. Yes, we want to keep them stimulated. We don’t want them to watch too much on screens. But at the same time, you have to keep yourself mentally healthy. You can’t beat yourself up.
“I’m just allowing things to change instead of responding with fear. Sitting with the change until it makes sense.”
Charis Hill, an activist and the co-creator of #HighRiskCovid19 in Sacramento, California
Has been socially isolating since early March
I have Ankylosing spondylitis, and I’m immunocompromised because of the medication. I was very nervous toward the end of February about leaving my house. By the first week of March, I finally quit all of that and started staying home except for emergencies.
Living with a chronic disease, I’m used to having a certain level of anxiety in my daily life. Chronic disease teaches you to adjust rapidly to new trauma. I’m professionally disabled, so I receive money from the Social Security Administration every month. Not enough to live on, but it is a constant.
Day to day, I’m intentionally not reading the news, not reading clinical research studies, because that’s not going to change how I live right now. Knowing more at this point isn’t going to change the fact that I need to do my daily self-care. I need to eat, I need to sleep, I need to survive.
Because of my chronic disease, I adapt in my normal life regardless of whether there’s a pandemic. So, with each new symptom in my body, I adapt to it. I think I’m approaching the pandemic in that same way, where I’m just allowing things to change instead of responding with fear. Sitting with the change until it makes sense.
I’m letting my anxiety tell me, “Okay, you need to rest now,” or, “It’s time to go outside and look at your plants.” But I’m also thinking about the future. When I’m going to have a potluck again or how I’m going to celebrate with people when they can be together again. Looking ahead in that way is helping a lot.
I’m even welcoming a stray cat into my house. It’s stressful, but it’s also good because it’s making me focus on nurturing a new thing. One way to adapt is to develop a new passion and give yourself permission to explore things that you never gave yourself permission to do before.
“We make events out of everything. Our kids are becoming real members of the household with their new chores and responsibilities.”
Jenna Pallio, an elementary art teacher in Milan, Italy
Has been socially isolating since early March
I haven’t left my apartment in weeks. My husband goes grocery shopping once a week, wearing a mask, and waits in line for one hour, sometimes two. I have two small children. Luckily we have balconies, so we just go out on the balcony. But they haven’t been out of the house in weeks, either.
I teach art, so I’m preparing video lessons and then I have one daughter who’s in kindergarten, so she has a program every day that her teacher sent her. I’m not that worried about losing my job because I am a teacher at an international school so I feel pretty secure in that. I do expect budget and pay cuts, but I think we will be okay. [Italy also has a freeze on laying off workers.]
I’m finding things I never thought would give me satisfaction now do. Like pizza night on Fridays are a huge deal. Or household chores that I hate. Because I’ve been home, I’m enjoying taking more time cooking and cleaning and organizing things, and also being okay with a huge mess at the same time.
We make events out of everything. Our kids are becoming real members of the household with their new chores and responsibilities. We tell them they are “helpers,” such as a lunch helper or a dinner helper. They started to mop our balconies and they love it.
We started doing “word of the day.” We’re making up games and jokes and routines to lighten up the day and make it fun for everyone. Last night we literally, like, drew faces on our chins and lip-synced songs together. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel so connected with my family and I do feel like we’re making memories.