28 Mar 2020
It's now been exactly two weeks since my girlfriend, A., and I decided to commence self-isolation; two weeks since I looked out of the living room window and felt mightily sanctimonious. Along the street, people were just carrying on as usual: meeting up in groups of 3-5 for brunch at the café, moping around fashion stores, sneezing into tissues that went straight back into pockets, coughing into their hands. We all drop the ball at some point, I suppose — not touching your face is hard! — but this all felt worse than mere complacency. It was wilful defiance. By Wednesday, the same café was closed, as had all other "non-essential" shops by government order (interestingly, in Berlin, this seems to exclude bookshops). I watched staff go inside the café and come out again, carrying trays of eggs and a blue IKEA bag no doubt filled with more perishables.
We had a cushy introduction to the concept of self-isolation, as we had already booked the week beginning 16th March off, and made the decision to cancel our holiday a couple of days before that. Although we were both disappointed that our trip to Yorkshire fell through, of course, it was the right decision. I have been very content with the fact I have been able to do almost whatever the hell I want at home, rather than trying to work from home.
Literally everything is about COVID-19 at the moment. It seems like we can't talk about anything else, like nothing matters, because society is having to adapt and people are losing their shit at the idea of not being able to do things they previously took for granted. But they have to suck it up. If we're going to get through this, we have to each do our part.
Here are some of the things I've been doing to stay sane:
This doesn't mean I never go on social media. But I personally have no inclination to spend much time there; certainly not to mindlessly scroll, thereby wasting time and feeling worse and worse. About once a day, I log into Twitter, almost instantly remember why I decided to avoid it, and log out again. I have deleted the Instagram app from my phone, but if I'm ever curious, I can just log into it from desktop! They've just introduced the messaging feature there, so I can see if anyone's sent me memes.
I'm doing this because many, many people online are being very vocal about their response to it all, but I don't want to take on the emotional burdens of a stranger. I'm someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and I didn't even start to feel anxious until I saw people talking about how we should all be feeling anxious!
Yes, this is not trivial, and this us all exacerbating existing social issues, and there are people who are going to be hit harder than most. However, I'd appreciate it if people would dispense with the talk about the "apocalypse" or "end times". It's not helpful. You can't control others' reactions, but you can mostly control what kinds of content you expose yourself to, so set your boundaries!
Despite the relative luxury of being off duty just in time for the start of self-isolation, having a big stretch of time ahead of you with no obligations can still be a bit intimidating. The first thing I did after deciding not to go away was lay out a plan for things I wanted to do.
I first made a list of odd home-based jobs and activities that I'd like to get done. I then went through what was realistic: was I going to get my taxes done during my annual leave? Pandemic or no pandemic, not going to happen. On the other hand, finally getting out the sewing machine and fixing some hems? Yes. Having the headspace to do a bit of reading? Yes.
I also put stuff on there that has been in my long-term goals for a while and is so close to becoming a short-term accomplishment! Admittedly, this came to me easily, as making lists and plans is my modus operandi; I can't stand using a calendar app, Moleskine diary all the way!
By the way, I'm very wary of glamourising productivity during this time (we've all seen this tweet and maybe even the numerous thinkpieces around it, too). I am trying extra hard to recognise when I want to write or study because I actually want to do it, or because I subconsciously feel I need to meet some "usefulness" quota.
Obviously, one of the weirdest things about all this is how each country's government is taking turns at being exposed as grossly complacent, and also, perfectly capable of tackling socioeconomic disparity if they really wanted to (but that's another post). Some have been quicker to enact quarantine orders than others. In Germany, as of yet, there is no restriction on actually going outside, provided you're accompanied by no more than one person — families excepted — and you stay at least 1.5m away from others.
The streets are all but deserted, empty of tourists. It's... nice. Berlin almost feels like a normal city, if it weren't for the fact that most of its countless independent businesses are being forced to close temporarily and lose revenue. I'm not quite sure what the current regulation is on cafés and restaurants, because some are still open, but only for takeaway, operating a kind of tuck-shop. It's best to check their social media before getting your hopes up.
Sure, get a week or two's worth of groceries in, no problem. But don't hoard things like toilet paper — just don't. There are so many reasons that makes you asozial.
The biggest psychological consequence of this, I think, is constantly re-realising that this is not all just a dream; that there's no safe place you can go to escape all this. How long is it going to be until this truly does become the new normal?
It's startling to consider how a year ago, the key issue was the climate emergency. We were all being encouraged to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics and so on, but now we have no choice but to turn to them for hygiene reasons. In this sense, the environmental toll will be huge, but also, the fact that nobody is travelling anywhere means that air pollution is decreasing all over the world. It will be interesting — in the loosest sense of the word — to see people crawling back to their old habits after this is all over. Because if this doesn't show them how precarious human life really is, they're probably not going to change when it comes to fighting climate catastrophe.
And, of course, it's also really rude that this is all happening at what I consider one of the most beautiful times of the year...