(1700 words, ~6 minutes to read)
You’ve been sent to prison, but you haven’t committed a crime. You’re stuck in your cell, day after day, briefly let out for food and medicine. Of course, this means your plans are cancelled for a while; you already haven’t seen your friends in weeks. It’s not your fault! It isn’t fair! You didn’t do anything wrong! Even so, here you are, isolated from everyone.
You plan your escape, only to realize there’s nowhere to go; everyone else is in prison too. What’s more, if you leave, the punishments will intensify, and not just for you; you’re likely to sentence everyone around you to additional time locked up (if not the death penalty). And you won’t get away with it; more and more, the government is watching your movements. Better to wait it out.
So you kill time, in anticipation of getting out and back to your life. You complain to your friends about how unfair it all is. You drink to pass the time. You’re getting bored, there’s nothing to do in this stupid place! You want to go outside! You want to go to parties, to concerts, to travel the world like you used to!
These are the thoughts of someone who sees the end in sight. But you don’t know how long your sentence will be. Some say weeks; some say months; could it be nearly two years? You might get parole early, but there are no guarantees.
Can’t things just go back to normal? How bad could it get?
I’m telling you, it can get bad. And it’s best for everyone if we plan to be in it for the long haul.
On the societal level, the best thing we can hope for is to successfully #FlattenTheCurve, keep the number of new cases per day low enough that local hospital resources don’t run out and the minimum number of people have to needlessly die. If we don’t, things can get very bad, as we see in places like Italy where they already have. The worst (realistic) case scenarios are not civilization-ending, but look extremely dire to anyone willing to take a hard look.
On an individual level, there are two kinds of people. There are those still out there, fighting for all of our lives or to keep their livelihoods afloat, under literal threat of death. They’re the medical professionals, the police officers, the bus drivers, the cashiers, the food delivery people, and many others who are keeping us healthy and the skeleton of our economies moving. On top of that are the medical researchers, working around the clock to develop new treatments and vaccines. All of these people are the heroes of the story, and deserve our praise. If you’re one of them, thank you; you have my unwavering gratitude and support. But this post is not about you.
This post is those of us that are lucky enough to have jobs we can do from the safety of our comfortable, temperature-controlled homes, but nonetheless feel trapped. Like innocent prisoners, we are just waiting for parole and don’t know when it will come.
Many of us (and I do mean “us”, me included) have been treating this as a temporary setback, something to get through before returning to our lives as we knew them. If this whole thing is temporary, then I can cut corners, treat this as a mini-vacation, and after some time just teleport myself back into my former life. I can spend a few weeks eating rice and lentils or rationing my last few rolls of toilet paper. I can get drunk every night, hoping to pass the time without thinking too much about the reason we’re all here. I can snap at my friends when they get on my nerves. Can you blame me? Can’t you see, I’m just stressed by the situation! It’s not my fault!
All of this, it represents the action of a bitter inmate that curses a system that could visit such injustice on them. But it’s not sustainable, if we’re in this for the long haul.
My expectation of the long haul is, I think, optimistic; a hope against it is a hope that this all ends quickly, which easily translates into more deaths. In numerous countries now (including my home country and current residence), the infection rate has risen exponentially, and barring some China-level restrictions of movement, it will likely continue to rise for some time. It didn’t take long between Italy’s first thousand cases and its hospitals being overwhelmed. If we don’t flatten the curve, then the US, Israel, Germany, so many countries around the world, will face the same fate. Barring a miracle, a vaccine will take 12-18 months, and until then we need to try to mitigate the damage.
Look again at the curves above: a flattened curve is a wide curve, a pandemic that lasts many months or longer. That’s the long haul. That’s what we are hoping for. That’s how our parents and grandparents, if they (God forbid) get sick, will be able to see a doctor and stay in a comfortable hospital bed getting the treatment they need. The long haul is how we keep people alive.
What does life look like for us, if we’re here quarantined for the long haul?
Some advice is ubiquitous by now: stop going out unless you absolutely need to; cancel your plans; keep a 2 meter distance from others; wash your damn hands. But on top of that, if we’re in it for the long haul, our daily and weekly routines will be forcibly disrupted in a nearly unprecedented way. It takes months to cultivate a new habit, but that’s the time we have right now. This is the perfect opportunity to develop new skills and build the habits we’ve always wanted.
I have the luxury to be able to work from home, and aside from that my calendar is now empty. This is a rare opportunity to change my routine, to change my life, in myriad ways that I “didn’t have time for” before. There sits that pile of books I’ve put off reading, that piano that I’ve put off playing, that family member that I’ve put off reconnecting with, because I “didn’t have time”. It’s clear, now, that I have time. All that’s missing is the motivation, and it’d be a shame not to dig deep and find the will do something positive with this opportunity.
Why not come away from this with some amazing new habits? If you want to get in better shape, there are a million free, at-home workouts available online (now, more than ever). If you’ve always wanted to try meditation, now’s the time. If you want to pursue a new academic discipline, learn to code, to juggle, or whatever, it’s all there at your fingertips. You can quit smoking. You can learn to cook. Whatever you want! What excuse do you have left?
Of course, your situation may be different from mine. Maybe your kids are home indefinitely from school, making your work life more difficult. If this were a short-term problem, you could power through, try to ignore their distractions and interruptions. But given the situation, it’s worth it to set yourself up a quiet place or establish some firm guidelines with them. It makes sense to establish a schedule with your significant other, e.g. one working while the other spends time with the kids. You need to make your new life sustainable for the long haul.
Or maybe you and your roommates (or partner) don’t get along so well when you see them all day, every day. If we just have to get through a few weeks, you can justify getting irritable with them and hoping for the day you go back to your normal routine. But you’re stuck with them for the long haul, and you’ll need to find some empathy so that you don’t rip each other’s heads off. Don’t forget: they’re innocent prisoners too. They didn’t ask for this any more than you did.
And if your struggles are more serious–if you or a loved one is ill, stranded in isolation elsewhere, or something else–my prayers are with you. Still, I hope you can strive to make the best of a bad situation.
I look around and I see a lot of pain, but I also see a lot of beauty: people helping their elders obtain essential groceries and medicine; offering their services or performances for free; helping each other cope with the new normal. The same is true around the world, and for good reason; it is likely that never in your lifetime have you had so much in common with fellow human beings in every corner of the globe. Right now, more than ever, your plight is their plight, in a manner that is both deep and completely obvious. Is there something, however small, you can do to help those in your community (or around the world) to get through this with a bit more strength, a bit more positivity, a bit more hope? Dig deep and find empathy for your fellow human. If not now, then when?
Whatever your particular challenge, this ordeal can carry an important silver lining. How often do you get to spend a whole day with your kids, or your significant other? When else would you have real reason to sit down with your “annoying” roommate and empathetically discuss your common plight? Why not brainstorm ways to help your fellow humans around the world, if only from within your apartment? And, if you’re like me and find yourself at home with a lot of unexpected free time, what excuse do you have for not cultivating the best habits of your life?
So assume you’re in this for the long haul. And as such, you’re going to come out changed, for better or worse; what you do right now matters. Take this time to make yourself better, because I shudder at the thought of having another opportunity like this one.