Our new columnist, best-selling author Olivia Sudjic, contracted coronavirus alongside many of her family. Pragmatism over panic, she details her experience and coping mechanisms.
I tuned in to the government’s first Covid-19 press conference on day eight of what will be at least 14 days of self-isolation (the strict quarantine kind) having caught the virus along with a ‘cluster’ of 70 people - my whole extended family - now isolating separately from me. Having felt like I was doing better, mentally and physically, I began to shake as I listened to the measures the UK was implementing. These were not covid-fever-shakes but adrenaline. Other than Boris Johnson’s substitution of ‘flatten the curve’ with ‘squash the sombrero’, I thought that at least people would take the huge ramifications of the virus seriously now and stop shrugging it off as hysteria. The bit that hit me hardest was when the categories of death were explained. Deaths caused directly by the virus, deaths caused by lack of medical resources, and indirect deaths due to the fallout of the crisis - such as mental health.
I’m sure most of us feel anxiety as we metabolise the news at the moment, with or without a confirmed diagnosis (good luck with that!), and yet as the conference concluded, a group of people below my window were merrily heading to the pub at the end of the road. Why not just lick the lamppost? I wanted to wail, the Covid-19 Cassandra. I watched them helplessly, then wondered how this act differed from my own coping strategies thus far of self-medicating with Corona memes.
Instagram is where I’ve been spending most of my time of late. At first I deliberated over ‘announcing’ I had the virus, worrying both about negative impacts, but also not wanting to be corny: an early-adopter or wannabe corona-influencer. In the end, I decided to use my tiny ‘platform’ because there seemed to be scant information and so much panic. People wanted to know how it felt.
A lot of my anxiety dreams involve trying to get un-anxious people to take a crisis seriously. When my cluster all caught the virus we were at a family party and though the media had not yet ramped up to full-apocalypse mode, I was not kissing or shaking hands. I noted how some more cavalier individuals reacted with derision and eyerolls when I demurred. I was politely waving and smiling, explaining it was pro-social behaviour, nothing to do with being squeamish about germs or worried for my own health - just, you know, our 80 and 90-year-old hosts? I had a strong instinct we would all get it (my precognitive abilities are for another column), but I had to push the fear aside, submit to the embrace and agree I was being hysterical.
It’s hard to convince sceptical people to take things seriously when there’s so much fake news and speculation around in the absence of certainty and consensus, in terms of the UK’s response to the crisis. It feels like all we know, is that we are all in this together, and yet people deal with stress in vastly different ways. It’s not always easy to talk to the people you love about pandemics (!) if they deal with them in a way that seems inexplicable to you. This can be especially stark when you are quarantined together. I even have a friend whose flatmates are big into herd immunity and want to get the virus, while she… does not. It’s the same with my ‘cluster’. An email thread of friends and family created to share information given to us by epidemiologists and compare symptoms, which shows just how much variety there is in the way that people react. I seem to be calling my mum 50 times a day and tell everyone how much I love them. I can only imagine how much more anxiety-inducing it must be to be someone more vulnerable reading the news, but I also feel impotent not being able to drop deliveries at my parents’ and grandparents’ door. It seems to be that the millennials and Gen Z of the family are panicking more than their boomer parents, however. I ring them to check in as little as I can bear to and try to make them laugh. I suspect they are also trying to reduce my worry and pretending to be less sick than they are.
With entire communities now living in isolation we will all start to modify our behaviour - to cope but also to help others cope with us. It started with the handshake - once a marker of trust, now one of threat, and the Behavioural Insights Team, or ‘Nudge Unit’ who use psychological science to advise the government on these new policies - but hopefully it will lead to an irreversible understanding of how close we really are in isolation: our fates are intimately bound up with one another's.
Instagram has helped me find people whose approach is similar. I like to think my corona persona is mainly calm and informative, with a dash of JESUS FUCKING CHRIST and a sprinkle of gallows humour. Feeling overwhelmed however at that particular moment, as I watched the revellers head to the pub, I wrote:
"I can’t imagine there’s a single person on Instagram not feeling the anxiety right now and bc I’m practiced with anxiety and swinging wildly between emotions myself (one of which is really morbid and fearing for everyone I love whose sick/vulnerable, another is rage, and another is intense love for Internet strangers that are kind - though maybe I’m becoming that annoying MDMA girl in the queue for the loo) I thought I’d make a list of things that help me w anxiety but which you can do in isolation. 1) write things down. Not on your phone. With pen and paper. Even draw a diagram. Draw a map. It doesn’t have to be a journal or deep thoughts. You can make a list of books to read or a food diary - trust me it will help gather scattered thoughts and make you feel more together and in control. 2) draw. Life draw each other. Sitting still indoors. Record the time this way. Date the drawings. 3) cook. If you’re a terrible cook, make terrible food but follow the recipes to the letter. 4) learn a language. Make lists of vocab. Find someone in a foreign country also in lockdown to call and practice with. 5) if you can’t concentrate on reading listen to an audio book - it’s very soothing being read to. Even better, read to each other - it’s my favourite favourite thing and reminds me of being a kid. 6) move around even if it’s to clean and keep the house spotless. This serves a double function of course. I’m not saying lean into the OCD nature of Covid 19 cleaning but keep your space as cosy as possible, it’s satisfying as it’s a visible achievement. 7) call people don’t just text (unless the coughing/throat stuff is bad, then text). It’s really different hearing a voice and not looking at a screen. 8) sing. Play music you know all the words to and sing along. Bonus points for songs from the nineties when most of us thought that adult life in 2020 was… not going to be… like this. I’ll stop at eight because it’s my lucky number, but let’s hope that there’s a silver lining to this. That it will seem possible to have real systemic chance once we’ve overcome this fucking virus together".