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. A doctor stuck my swollen foot in an unflattering moon boot and sent me home.
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 this week, more of us may find ourselves in this situation.
Provided you’re not actually suffering with illness, “self-isolation” might not sound too bad. Online, many joke how it will actually be a lark. The uber rich are readying private jets for retreats to holiday homes. Even for normal people, it could feel like a little holiday, where you can decimate that bedside pile of books, plough through Netflix and have the perfect excuse for my generation’s most beloved pastime – bailing on plans.
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. I had a partner, a few friends who lived locally, and upstairs neighbours who would knock on my door some afternoons to check I was OK. People brought me things I needed, and treats to get me through. One friend routinely stopped by with obscenely large American coffees, which I once hated, but all of a sudden felt like a tender connection to the city outside my door.
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.
In the US, where there is no guaranteed sick leave, experts have warned many workers will defy pleas to stay home during the current outbreak, even if ill, out of pure economic necessity.
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.
Nicole Gadon, an American woman forced into lengthy home quarantine by tuberculosis in 2014, told the New York Times the loneliness was palpable. Quarantine rules meant she could not even share a bed with her husband. Looking back, she wished she had said yes when her brother offered to simply stand outside on her lawn and keep her company. Her two pieces of advice? “Ask for help” and “get an indoor pet”.
Already in China during this outbreak, we have heard stories about the most dire consequences of social isolation – but 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. The phrase translates to “add oil” and roughly means “keep up the fight” or “stay strong”.
It was a motto later co-opted by government officials but 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.