The CDC warned us. The World Health Organization warned us. Now I’m warning you: It’s just a matter of time before the coronavirus pandemic spreads through the U.S. It could be circulating in your town as we speak. Now’s the time to prepare for quarantine, by stocking up on essentials and getting mentally ready for confinement, because who knows how long it will last. Quarantine in principle should entail a couple weeks after exposure, but to be on the safe side, get ready for at least a month of withdrawal from society.
As a veteran international correspondent who instructs others how to survive hostile environments, I’ve been collecting tips from Chinese acquaintances who have learned the hard way how to power through the experience. As with any scary situation, the best approach is to think ahead and make the most of it. As I know from experience being holed up in hotels during fighting, sheltering in place is always less distressing with advance planning. Here are some guidelines as you plot the monastic life ahead.
HOARDING. You want to amass provisions before other panicked citizens empty out the stores. Plan for a month of groceries, medications, and germ barriers. This last category should include 75% alcohol to clean surfaces, disposable gloves to throw away once you’ve cleaned the surfaces, as many face masks as you can find, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizers. A lot of suppliers have already sold out of N95 respirator masks, the model preferred by doctors worldwide. But more mundane construction ones will do in a pinch — and in fact, the most important thing is to wash hands and keep them away from the face. I checked a 25-mile radius of my current locale and couldn’t find a pharmacy, hardware store, or Best Buy that had any left. My forward-thinking friends got to them first.
If you do happen to get your hands on the coveted N95s, gift out any leftovers once your imprisonment ends. You’ll become the most popular person on the block.
FOOD. Non-perishables reign: long-life milk, rice, cereal, honey, canned goods, dried fruit, peanut butter. Eggs and most hard cheeses can last a full month, if not more. Fill the freezer with meats and vegetable casseroles to get through the long haul. And gelato. Variety is key to break the boredom. Leafy vegetables and fruit have a limited shelf life, but carrots, cabbage, onions and potatoes can last surprisingly long. Like, two to three months if bought super fresh. At some point, though, you’re going to crave takeout. Ask local restaurants if they will deliver sealed packages of prepared dishes that can be dropped at the door. This will also help keep them in business until you finally emerge.
COCKTAILS. While shopping, load up on booze. The worst thing to do in a crisis is drink. Alcohol can interrupt sleep and make you more depressed. But of course you’re going to drink. That’s what the cabin feverish do. As you will have loads of time to fill, opt for complex cocktails. Mixing ingredients takes more energy than opening a beer bottle. I just happened upon a concoction called the Quarantine, reportedly first mixed in 1920s Manila. Bartenders disagree on ingredients; you’ll have ample empty hours to try them all. A common version involves 45 ml rum, 7 ml gin, 7 ml dry vermouth, lemon and orange juice, two dashes of absinthe, and an egg white. Other versions throw in fresh ginger and rhubarb, passion and grapefruit juice, and bitters and cinnamon. In homage to the pandemic’s origins, experiment with baiju, China’s version of vodka. If you can’t get to the liquor store before seclusion begins, mix in whatever else you find lying around the house. Rename the concoction “19.”
DOCTORS. Make arrangements for online consultations, particularly with therapists. You’re going to need therapy.
ROUTINES. Freelancers and hostages stay sane with routines. So shall you. You absolutely must not sit around in sweats all day reading conspiracy theories online. Keep strict hours as though working 9 to 5. Set the alarm for the same time every day, hop into the shower, put on an outfit you’d want to be seen in. Establish set times for meals, exercise, entertainment, socializing, and bed.
STAY POSITIVE. It’s easy to panic or fret. Social contact is one of the best ways to calm down, providing you’re in contact with calm people. Start an online support group. To keep busy, fact-check all the alarming rumors so that you can shoot them down. Aggregate information from credible medical sources. Become an influencer, the cool quarantineer everyone wants to follow. #QUARANTINEQUEEN. Start by mixing that cocktail.
ENTERTAINMENT. One of the hardest things to accept is that you’ve lost control over your life. Get out of your head with distracting activities. Load the Kindle and binge watch television. No one will judge you if you spend 20 hours a day on Netflix. No one will know! You’re in quarantine. Gaming and live streaming are favored distractions among Chinese quarantineers. Become a bedroom musician. Start an online music festival or poetry jam to entertain similarly confined folk.
FACTS. Beware of disinformation. Ignore all rumors. For example, steaming masks in hot water will not disinfect them. That is a common misconception. It will simply destroy the filter. Flushing the nose won’t get rid of the virus, either. And Elvis is not alive.
TALK TO OLD PEOPLE. Seniors who survived World War II blitzes and Soviet shortages know how to carry on calmly and make a potato last. They will put things in perspective: They survived. So will you. You will have plenty of time to look for them online.
TALK TO YOURSELF. No one can overhear!
EXERCISE. You don’t want to emerge 30 pounds heavier than when you got the virus. YouTube has tons of apartment-friendly exercise videos that can be done at home. Get Nintendo’s Ring Fit. It’s very popular in China these days.
FINANCES. Plump the checking account with enough $ to cover a month or two of living expenses, in case the paychecks dry up while in confinement.
BUSINESS PLAN. To train for quarantine, curtail non-essential meetings today. Switch to telework. You can finally avoid annoying colleagues!
TAKE IT ONE DAY AT A TIME. It may seem like a lifetime, but two weeks, and even a month, isn’t that long. Who knows, once you get into the swing of it you may decide that the hermetic life is for you. And if not, well, you know what to do for the next pandemic.
Judith Matloff teaches crisis reporting at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her book “How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need” comes out shortly.
Illustration by Hunter French.