By Imogen Wall
Okay. So I’ve (largely) kept my peace so far on this whole pandemic thing, even though I’m working on it, because I’m not an epidemiologist/virologist/immunologist – and I’ve seen enough over the years (this is my sixth epidemic response) to know just how seriously dorky all of that is. When it comes to all that, UK Chief Med Officer Chris Whitty is Da Man and I got nothing.
But now a lot of people are talking about going into self isolation, lockdown etc – and that IS something I know a bit about. Like most aid workers, I’ve been stuck because of hurricanes, home bound due to political crises and I once got stranded in a hotel suite in Haiti with a BBC Radio 4 team for four days with only one pair of knickers. I'm also a mental health first aider, and qualified therapist. So let’s just say I have a few lessons I’ve learned the hard way, which mostly boil down to how to take care of yourself and others. And now I’m at home alone with a glass of wine and nothing better to do, so here goes:
DON'T PANIC: Easier said than done but it doesn't help. Deep breath everyone. We're in this for the long haul and it's going to get worse before it gets better so start with that assumption.
REACTIONS: Everyone reacts differently to emergencies. Some people information-seek like mad, some get angry, some pick fights (in real life or on social media), some panic, some make a LOT of jokes, some deny the problem, some become terribly terribly active and efficient and want to help, some withdraw and fall off the radar. These are, fundamentally, all coping mechanisms for the same thing, which is at its root a deep sense of fear and loss of control. They’re all valid. Bottom line: we’ll need to be kind to each other, and that includes if someone is being aggressive or argumentative or overbearing. Experience suggest that we’ll all have a bit of a meltdown, and probably a cry, at some point. It’s just the way it goes.
RIGHT NOW IS ONE OF THE WORST BITS: The worst bit of crises is that moment when everyone collectively realises the severity of what we are facing and goes, oh shit. The moment at the top of the rollercoaster when we all look down. It’s horrible. But it doesn’t last. In a little while everything will normalise and find a new rhythm. It’ll be a different life, and a (much) harder one for some, but it’ll have structure and routine. I’ve been in camps of disaster survivors a week after an earthquake – and there are always, already, communities reforming, hairdressers opening up, coffee shops. Humans are incredibly adaptable. Also, you are about to find out just how many amazing people you have around you.This is one of the best bits.
THERE WILL BE GOOD BITS: I always struggle to explain why I loved working in crises, but it basically boils down to the fact that when the chips are down, people are just incredible at looking after each other. You'll never see community cohesion, support offered to strangers and kindness like that which emerges in crisis situations. Unimportant things melt away, at least for a while, and stark choices ask of us all: who ARE you? Love your friends and family and take care of them - they are what will get you through this, and you them. You'll see people do amazing things, things you'll never forget. And you'll do amazing things too.
EXERCISE: Yoga is great when you’re stuck indoors and so are online classes, but if you’ve got an outdoor area or a bit of space indoors you really can’t beat skipping for getting your heart rate up in seconds (and making you feel better). If you don’t have a rope, washing line (esp the plastic kind) is an excellent substitute. Even a few minutes and you’ll feel loads better (if quite out of breath). Or put on some music and dance dance dance (you won't even have to pretend no one can see you). That will lift your soul as well as your heart rate (hat tip Tania Bernath for that one).
BOOZE: Hurray for a crisis in which wine stockpiling is an option (makes a change from lockdown in dry countries I can tell you). Obviously this is for those of us who don't have issues with drinking - and even then we need to be careful as too much alcohol will make the anxiety worse and it's also a depressant. But if you opt for spirits, go for vodka. I know, I know – I’m a gin girl myself, but it does tend to need tonic/ice/lemon which can be harder to source than liquor. Vodka can be sloshed into anything, drunk neat and at a, pinch warm. Plus in extremis, it’s better than nothing as a disinfectant (let’s hope you don’t need to go there). Having said that, if you insist on gin, Morrisons is doing a litre of Bombay Sapphire for £18 which is a stone cold steal. Just don't forget the tonic.
STOCKING UP: If you're really going to isolate you do need to do this, but don't go nuts - we're not on a remote pacific island. Include some treats among the basic - trust me, you have NO IDEA how obsessed it is possible to become about nice eats. There have been times in my life when cheese was seriously the most exciting thing in the entire world. A diet of baked beans/pasta will keep you going, but it will get VERY dull and won’t help your mental health. Also, loo paper really doesn’t taste great. Easter eggs are half price, people! Chocolate, sweets, your comfort food of choice should all be in there if that’s your bag, but my top tip is things that keep like cured meats, waxed cheese, tasty things in tins and smoked salmon. If you can afford it, do a bit of your stocking up at delis - they also need your business more than the big supermarkets. Delish, better than plain sugar and if it *really* gets bad, excellent in a middle class barter economy (wait till you see what your mates will do for a packet of prosciutto when scarcity really bites). Also don't forget things like light bulbs and washing power.
TRANSPORT: If you haven’t got a bike, think about getting one. If you have, get it serviced (did mine today). Definitely going to be the most reliable, safest and healthiest way of getting around in cities at least and when you do go out, and might be the only even remotely safe way of socialising for a while. Plus panniers make shopping v convenient. If you have a car and you think you might need it in an emergency, brim it – fuel shortages aren’t on the cards right now but better safe than sorry (you taught me that YG).
ACTIVITIES: Cook. Garden. Knit, Draw. Do things with your hands (stop sniggering at the back) that don't involve a screen. It's basically meditation and and will relieve stress better than anything involving a screen.
MAKE USEFUL FRIENDS: With people like your local cornershop owner. Even if they are forced to close, they will have the connections to get you stuff. In Indonesia we agreed to turn a blind eye to a local trader plugging into our electrical supply as long as he stocked my housemate’s favorite ciggies (Tim Kassapian Olly Hall remember)? They're the ones who'll keep you in prosciutto.
MEDICINES: If you get Covid you’re almost certainly going to have to home treat. Other people will be better placed to advise on this than me (ie take advice from actual medical professionals), but you’ll need stuff like painkillers, things like lemsip and detergent to keep your bedding and clothes as disease free as possible. The advice is loads of fluids so things to make water taste nice (my choice is Ribena). I also swear by ORS but that’s probably just me.
HELP: Ask for it if you need it - there are no prizes for suffering in silence. The Mutual Aid people are amazing. But there are also, sadly, going to be scammers taking advantage of this situation (already reported in Haringey). Ask for ID and an organiser contact, don’t give them money without a receipt and definitely not your bank card. And don't put up with any nonsense: if anyone harasses you, report them.
LIMIT SOCIAL MEDIA: And realise your own susceptibility to rumours. The mill goes mad at times like this. From hot water treatments to believing that the military are about to take over, the myths fly around and we’ll ALL fall for at least some of them at some point. It’s not stupidity, it’s human nature: scared people are really bad at evaluating data and especially risk. Clever people if anything are even more susceptible because they believe they are too smart to fall for misleading info. They are wrong. And don't gloat if you catch them out - it'll be you next.
LIMIT NEWS EXPOSURE: In addition to feeding the rumour mill, spending too much time watching the news will just create stress. Likewise, spend too much time online and sure as COVID is COVID you’ll find infinite rabbit holes and do very bad things to your mental health. Staying up all night reading is not going to make you an instant epidemiologist, just sleep deprived which makes everything worse. Ration it, trust reliable sources (like the NHS) and make like the BBC: double source everything you hear, ESPECIALLY if you really want to believe it is true. Turn it off, go outside and feel the spring sunshine.
EXPECT MORE CHANGE: We don’t know very much about this bug yet, and the scientists are learning more every day. The advice will alter on that basis. It’s not because our evil government is trying to kill us, it’s because they’re finding out new things all the time about how it affects different groups and what works. This happens in every epidemic with a new bug: it’s weird to us but it’s normal-outbreakness (and completely bloody fascinating if you’re a nerd, which all outbreak professionals are at heart) (Emma Dreyer you know what I mean).
SMALL GESTURES mean a HUGE amount: Flowers left on someone’s doorstep. A card saying I’m thinking of you. A phone call, a direct message. The last slice of aforementioned prosciutto. They take on a real disproportionate impact. I will never forget one particular person arriving in a particularly tight spot with a can of cold diet coke for me. Even tho we’re no longer friends that remains. Do the little things, they HUGELY count.
HUMOUR is also uber important: So important that sometimes I see aid worker job descriptions that actually ask for this as a qualification (don't ask me how they test that at interview): never forget the healing power of a good giggle. Especially good with children. Make yourself and the people around you laugh and you'll all feel better (there's actual science around this). Everything from watching comedy shows to sharing memes (the meme game on COVID-19 is impressively on point). If you lose your sense of humour, take that as a warning sign that you're not doing OK.
UNDERLYING PROBLEMS don’t go away: One of the things about crises is that they seem like the only show in town. But people’s day to day problems don’t stop, they only get compounded. If you’re in an unhappy relationship, mentally ill, dealing with addiction or infertility, coping with a family death, or your identity has been stolen or you’re in a custody battle then these things don’t stop – they just get compounded, but everyone else tends to forget. So if this is one of your mates, keep taking care of them on that level too.
ONE DAY IT WILL BE OVER: The day will come when we meet up for drinks, and gather for dinners, and laugh and raise glasses and chat and hug and relax together again. Taste the sweetness of friendship and casual conversation and trivia and a life without this care. Every day we go through this is a day closer to that day. Maybe we’ll even be better people in a better world – and one in which we can get a jab for COVID-19 and forget about it, and maybe even one in which the antivaxxers have finally shut the hell up. But if we’re not this will still have ended.
And the rest of our lives – blessed as they are, in this country and continent where we do not face these kind of restrictions (and far, FAR worse) every day of our lives, as so many do, and because we live in the age of modern medicine – will be epidemic free. We'll back to the humdrum existence of first world problems, of complaining about nothing - but maybe perhaps with new knowledge of our neighbourhoods and new friends, because that's who the strangers on our streets turned out to be. I’m raising a glass tonight, to that today. One day soon, I know we’ll raise one together.
And in the meantime, keeping spare knickers in my handbag. Just in case.
Please share this post with anyone who may find it useful. Comments also welcome. If it's helpful, you can download a PDF of this article here.