Over the last week, the world has woken up to the reality of a global pandemic. What was once a vague hypothetical — what would you do if they closed all the schools? — is now reality for people in all corners of the world as COVID-19 spreads. Schools are closing, people are being forced to stay at home, epidemiologists like me have gone from being unknown weirdos sitting in front of spreadsheets to some of the most listened to people on the face of the earth*.
The message for most countries has gone from “don’t worry everything will be fine” to “stay at home and don’t get sick”. And while I’ve already published tips for coronavirus prevention — social distancing people! — there’s really no way to prepare for something that hasn’t happened in the lifetimes of most people on thie Earth.
And yet, life goes on. The birds sing, the flowers bloom, and somehow we all have to cope. We wake up to another day, and instead of getting on the train or in a car, we sit in front of a desk at home and frantically refresh twitter while our fur-babies or real babies create endless distractions in the background.
So, my advice, meager as it is. None of us is sure about anything, but here are some things that I have found help with mental health during these interesting times.
Settle In For The Long Haul
This point is the first because it is the most important. A lot of people are under the impression that this is a problem that will go away in weeks, maybe a month at most. Now partially that’s because of articles that have gone viral despite being mostly wrong, partially it’s because there is so much uncertainty in any prediction that it’s all suspect, but mostly I think it’s because we all deeply, fervently wish it to be true.
I can tell you right now it is not. Settle in for the long haul people, COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon.
What does the long haul mean? Likely a minimum of 3 months. Parts of China have been in lock-down for that long. Probably more like 6 months. Maybe even more than that. Predictions are, at this point, the ultimate folly — we simply don’t know enough to predict the future with anything approaching accuracy, despite what Silicon Valley geeks might be telling you.
So get prepared. Put together a decent working space at home. Clean it, or not, whatever you do at your regular work-desk. Even if you’re not working, make sure there’s an adequate supply of coffee because we will all need it in the coming months.
Do whatever you have to so that you feel safe, and can live like this for a while. There may be lifting of restrictions at some point, but normalcy is probably some time off yet.
Take A Deep Breath
Why am I giving you clichéd, ridiculous-sounding advice? As I like to say, things are clichés for a reason. Breathing can help with stress and anxiety, but more importantly it’s a metaphor for something we should all be doing. Don’t make a list and frantically try to get it done in a day — you’ve got time. Take a breath, take a minute, and think realistically about the next few months.
Mental health is as important as physical health, and as someone with anxiety I can tell you that I don’t think the next few months will be easy. Give yourself a moment to process that, realize that it’s ok to worry, and keep going.
We’re all afraid. There are a lot of things to be afraid of right now. Just don’t let the fear control you.
Find A Way To Be With People, Without Physically Being With People
Even introverts like me are social animals when push comes to shove. We may all be delighted that there are no more parties full of people to attend for the next few months, but it’s going to be impossible to cope without some social interaction for all this time.
So find other ways to see your friends and family in spite of COVID-19. Use online services like Hangouts to see people that you’d see every day. It may be a while before we all go back to hugging strangers like it’s a normal thing to do, but there are ways to interact with the people in your life without actually touching them.
Stop Reading Predictions Online
Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, stop reading the predictions of armchair epidemiologists online. Everyone has decided overnight that they are an expert in infectious disease transmission, and I can tell you without question that they are almost all wrong.
Yes, even that viral article you’ve read with millions of views.
The thing is, most experts in this area are wary of giving predictions at all because everything is much too uncertain. The real pandemic modelers are creating hundreds of graphs for hundreds of different plausible scenarios, not posting their inaccurate predictions online.
But people are people, and the lure of fame is too much right now, so these predictions are going to keep coming, flawed as they are. The best advice I can give to you, for your mental health, is to stop reading them. At best, they are misleading but interesting speculations about what might be. At worst, they are panic-inducing nonsense that should be deleted immediately.
Either way, probably unhelpful.
I’m not going to make any predictions. We don’t really know what tomorrow may bring. Perhaps we’ll be lucky, and this will all be over in a month, but I wouldn’t count on it even with enormous government intervention.
Social distancing is here to stay, for now at least, and we all have to live with it.
Look after yourself.
And remember to breathe.
Listen to Gid’s coronavirus special on Sensationalist Science:
*As someone who works in public health, I can tell you it feels very weird. This time last year I was explaining to someone for the 1,000th time that no, I wasn’t a skin doctor. Today everyone knows what I do, and sends me questions about what’s going to happen tomorrow.