Last week I got back from a vacation in Vietnam. It was a lovely trip! I ate so much pho, rode a motorbike, and went to beaches and museums. I was also offline and not really following the news for about two weeks. Did I miss anything?
The coronavirus outbreak had been on the rise in China shortly before I left, but with no travel advisories in place for Vietnam (cases of the virus have been minimal there compared to surrounding countries), I went ahead with my travel plans. Imagine my surprise and confusion when I got back to New York and found everyone in full-on prepper mode.
Things got even more disorienting when I got an email from BuzzFeed HR the day I got back, saying that anyone who had been somewhere with a COVID-19 travel advisory was mandated to work from home for two weeks. That included me, as I had had a brief layover in Japan.
I’d originally thought it overly cautious to stockpile food and supplies, but then my doctor suggested I stay indoors as much as possible. I wasn’t totally clear how concerned I should be — I was only in Japan for one hour! — but just to be safe, I bought heaps of groceries, prepped a bunch of freezer meals, and readied myself for self-quarantine.
Then this week, all my colleagues at the New York office were told to work remotely out of an abundance of caution — just as many other offices have been doing.
As coronavirus upends life for more and more people, you might be feeling uncertain or fearful about what’s to come. When that anxiety is coupled with a sudden drop in social contact — whether because you’re quarantined or just working from home for who knows how long — those feelings can feel even more heightened, said Laura Hawryluck, a critical care physician and associate professor at the University of Toronto.
“We don’t realize just how social beings we are until that contact is reduced or diminished because we can't leave our homes,” Hawryluck told BuzzFeed News.
“We don’t realize just how social beings we are until that contact is reduced or diminished because we can't leave our homes.”
Shortly after the SARS epidemic in China in the early 2000s, Hawryluck authored a study on the psychological effects of people quarantined for SARS. It showed there was a “high prevalence of psychological distress” for people who had been quarantined.
“With SARS, there was that sense of isolation,” Hawryluck said. “People also didn’t feel that they got consistent or accurate information, and that led to a lot of fear, a lot of anger, frustration, and stress. A lot of people felt very depressed by all of it, and a lot of people had nightmares.”
Those symptoms can be worsened for people who have been exposed to the disease and live with other people, as they may worry about spreading the coronavirus to people they care about. “Most people aren’t worried for themselves, because they think they’ll get through it, which in and of itself is a coping skill,” said Hawryluck. “But worry about someone they love, that makes all those psychological symptoms more prominent.”
There are a whole bunch of reasons you may be staying home for a while due to coronavirus. At the least restrictive end of the spectrum are the many workers, like me, who are doing their jobs from home for the foreseeable future because their employer mandated it. More serious are those (like Sen. Ted Cruz) who are self-quarantining after coming in contact with someone infected with the virus, as well as those people self-quarantining after exhibiting flu-like symptoms. At the most severe end are people who are medically quarantined because they have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. You might also live in a country, like Italy, or a US county that's under lockdown, where travel is being restricted and people are being urged to stay home as much as possible.
If you’re self-quarantining for any reason, working remotely, or just feeling anxious about having to do either of those things for a while, there are tons of little ways to prepare yourself that aren’t just buying up your grocery store’s entire stock of beans (though here’s a guide to making a coronavirus preparedness kit, in case you need that too).
We asked experts, consulted guides, and crowdsourced tips online. Here's some of our advice:
1. You can eat normal, tasty, healthy foods.
Just because you’re stocking up doesn’t mean you have to live on nonperishable foods and canned vegetables. That’s going to get tiresome real quick, and there are plenty of ways to eat the things you normally would.
Fill your freezer with fresh, flavorful soups. Keep pasta in your pantry and tomato sauce in your freezer. Think about the foods you would want to eat on a typical day; usually there’s a way to keep those around. Personally, I froze a big batch of taco soup and a bunch of marinated salmon, and made a crunchy quinoa salad that lasts well in the fridge for the week. I also bought eggs, sweet potatoes, peanut butter, hummus, carrots, and a bunch of other things — normal staples for my diet that will keep for a decent length of time.
2. And remember that food isn’t just about staying alive.
You don’t just need well-balanced meals! You need Cheez-Its, peanut butter cups, popcorn, gummy bears...really whatever snacks you’ll be craving if you’re stuck inside for a while. There has never been a better time to have ingredients around to bake cookies. And if you’re out here thinking meal prep time would be a good time to get super healthy and only eat lentils, get real. These are trying times. Buy the damn candy.
On that note, don’t forget coffee and tea, if you drink them, and some booze if that’s up your alley. You probably don’t need to stockpile water, but I bought enough seltzer to tide me over for a while. Priorities.
3. Avoid being too isolated.
Being forced to stay inside might sound like an introvert’s dream come true, but when it’s in the midst of a worldwide epidemic and everyone is panicking, it’s not such a fun and chill time. It took me one day stuck at home to get lonely and stir-crazy.
Check in with your people. Get on the phone or FaceTime and call your family and friends with some regularity — you’ll probably need it, and so will they.
And if someone you know actually gets quarantined, or gets infected with the virus, be there for them as much as you (safely) can. Call them, or just send a playlist, some memes, or links. And even if you can’t go hang out with them IRL, consider cooking them a meal and leaving it outside their door, which is safe to do.
“People [need to] know who to call if they do start getting symptoms, [and] know there is somebody who is going to check in on them, that they’re not just going to be isolated and forgotten about,” said Hawryluck. “If you’re afraid you’re going to get sick, what you really need and want is to know that somebody is going to care for you.”
4. Get a little fitness in.
There are plenty of workouts you can do from the comfort of your own home, and doing so can seriously help your mental health.
And if you can still go outside, nothing beats a walk. Just avoid big groups of people.
5. Clean your home.
6. Go online, but beware.
When the SARS epidemic broke out in 2002, Facebook, Twitter, and even Myspace did not yet exist. Now, people are far more digitally connected, and the ability to keep in touch over social media and video chat can have major benefits on mental health during isolation. “It shortens distances between people,” Hawryluck said.
But the internet also creates issues that didn’t exist during SARS — namely, the spread of misinformation.
“People are afraid, and that’s okay — we are human, there are things in our lives that are going to scare us, and this is one of them,” said Hawryluck. “But how we handle that fear, I think fear can be lessened if we have accurate information.”
Here’s a running list of misinformation about the coronavirus to keep on hand as you peruse social media. Also, be wary of those hawking fake cures online or trying to infect your computer with malware by sending you suspicious coronavirus-themed emails.
7. Plan out your entertainment.
Watch the news, for sure, but don’t just stay glued to cable news. “The worst thing people can do is sit around and watch TV or watch their screens and look for the hourly update of numbers,” Hawryluck said. “I think that just exaggerates the symptoms of fear and its effects.”
You know all those shows and movies you’ve been meaning to watch but never get around to? Make a list — yes, an actual list — of the titles, and you’ll never run out of things to watch.
But if spending too much time looking at screens is driving you nuts, shut it down.
8. Seek professional help if you’re really struggling.
Whether you’ve been to a therapist before or are just realizing you might need to see one, seeking help with your mental health doesn’t need to wait till you can go outside again. Lots of therapists offer sessions over the phone or video chat. Here are a bunch of tips for how to find a therapist. There are also apps to help you with your mental health.
9. If you’re working from home, do it right.
Working from home sounds like the dream — pajamas all day, slacking off, working from the couch! — but it can get bleak and unproductive pretty quickly if it’s not approached the right way.
Matt Greenwell, BuzzFeed’s director of engineering, has worked from his home in Austin for six years. He advised people new to the WFH life to try to keep a regular routine as much as possible, including getting dressed and grooming yourself like you usually would, eating breakfast, and having a ritual to signal a transition into the workday, like taking a walk.
“The getting dressed bit is a bit of a trope, [but] if you don’t put effort into yourself, you won’t put effort into anything else,” Greenwell told BuzzFeed News.
And actually seeing and speaking to people matters too, he said. He suggested holding meetings over video chat — and actually turning the camera on for them.
“Luckily my wife is at home with me as well so we can chat with each other and have lunch together, but if she wasn’t, I’d be desperate for human interaction when she got home from work,” he said.
10. Remember to stay healthy and practice good hygiene.
Information is power, and having the right info can be helpful in stopping yourself from freaking out. You don’t need to go overboard on research, but it’s a good idea to be aware of what you should do if you do think you’ve contracted the coronavirus.
And perhaps the easiest way to stay healthy is to maintain proper hygiene. You don’t need a face mask (unless you’re sick), but you should be washing your hands regularly (and remember, soap and water is just as effective as hand sanitizer).
Once that’s done, just try to take it easy (and maybe order some dumplings to support your favorite Chinese restaurant). These are tough, uncertain times, and the best thing we all can do is be kind to ourselves and our neighbors as we all go through it.