Coronavirus Self-quarantine Might Not Sound So Bad


Josephine Tovey 約瑟芬·托維默

One particularly brutal winter when I lived in New York, I was hurrying to a meeting when I slipped on the icy pavement and broke my ankle.

Rolling snowstorms coupled with a cavalier attitude to snow-shovelling among New Yorkers meant I was taking my life into my hands every time I hobbled on my crutches even just to the corner store, so I stopped trying. For weeks, I barely left my apartment.

I've been thinking about that lonely period of confinement a lot lately, as the novel coronavirus sweeps the globe and more and more people prepare themselves for the possibility of home quarantine.

Already, millions in China have been forced inside for lengthy periods during mandated lockdowns. In Australia, increasing numbers of people who've been in contact with an infected person, or have returned from China or Iran, are self-isolating at home. With the first cases of community transmission, more of us may find ourselves in this situation.

Provided you're not actually suffering with illness,“self-isolation” might not sound too bad. The uber rich are readying private jets for retreats to holiday homes. Even for normal people, it could feel like a little holiday.

But confinement for many is daunting. As well set up as I was, I found my own taste of it boring and lonely. I was tethered to my laptop - I read on it,watched TV on it, worked on it and stared at it as I did modified workouts I found on YouTube. After a week, I wanted to put my moonboot through it.

Some days I would put my coat on over my pyjamas to stand out on my stoop and absorb just a little of the real world. It gave me insight into why so many elderly people in my neighbourhood did this everyday anyway.

I was lucky though, in a lot of ways. What made all the difference for me were the connections with other people I'd been forced to make coming to a new city. Critically too, I wasn't struggling financially. I was still employed full time by my Australian company, so I had paid sick leave for those first painful couple of days, and after that, the ability to do my job from home. Many, who are employed as casuals or work precarious jobs in the growing gig economy, wouldn't be so lucky.

The psychological strain too will be real for many,and the strength - or lack - of our social bonds will come to the fore.

Loneliness is already a serious mental health problem in this country. Around a quarter of Australians live in one-person households and the rental market in big cities means many of us live transient existences, with little opportunity to build community networks or get to know our neighbours.

For many, going to work provides vital human connection. The small interactions of daily life - trips to the shops, a chat while walking your dog - are not just diverting, they're sustaining.

Already in China during this outbreak, so too we have seen a wellspring of creativity as people stay connected however they can.

Live-streamed DJ sets to turn apartments into satellite nightclubs, online book clubs and recipe forums where millennials can learn to cook together are some of the ways people are not just fighting boredom but are staying tethered to the outside world and each other.

What hit me hardest though was the sound of hundreds of residents chanting “Wuhan jiāyóu” out their apartment windows during the long nights of the government lockdown.

It remains a message of human solidarity in the face of isolation and adversity, and a reminder that even if we must be physically alone for periods during this outbreak, it will be fortifying - essential even - that we do it together.