Current: Advice From a Crisis Expert on Surviving a Lockdown

Reposted from the NY Times By Alix Strauss March 19, 2020

Root vegetables have a long shelf life — think Russia. 

How Stock up on root vegetables, watch comedies and other things you can do to stay sane.

Judith Matloff, who teaches crisis reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, has found herself in some tight situations, like being trapped in a hotel during a civil war in Angola. The experience, she said, was dicier than, say, staying inside a New York apartment to avoid a dangerous virus, but there were some similarities, too.

Her new book, “How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need,” won’t be available until May, but she recently shared some insights on surviving a lockdown.

The following interview is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

A chapter in your book deals with how to survive in a bunker. When you wrote this, did you think New Yorkers would be in this position?

I was thinking natural disasters were on the rise, but I thought of them as being climate-related. I didn’t think about sheltering for a pandemic.

What do you predict the next two weeks will be like?

This isn’t like a tornado where you wait in the basement for it to blow over. Authorities are constantly revising and re-evaluating their responses. I think New York will do a version of what happened in California. I would be stunned if we were not allowed to walk dogs or play soccer in the park. The term “shelter” is making people alarmed. It really means not congregating in large groups. You shouldn’t be going to a party with 20 people or getting a haircut.

Have you ever had to live in a bunker?

I was holed up in a hotel in the early 1990s in Angola, south Africa, for a couple of weeks. There was a civil war. We didn’t have running water. We couldn’t go outside. My only link to the outside world was a satellite phone and it blew up after an electrical surge.

The other time I was stuck in a mountaintop in Colombia, researching a book. The only way in and out was via helicopter. I was sharing a small space with a bunch of soldiers. I was there for a few days with bad army food. The smell was disgusting and the space was claustrophobic.

Do you believe in maintaining a daily routine?

Absolutely. You want a sense of control over your life and a routine helps you with that. If you have a set schedule you have targets to move toward. For people who are not used to working at home, a lack of structure can be confusing.

“You want a sense of control over your life and a routine helps you with that.” 
“You want a sense of control over your life and a routine helps you with that.” Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Right now, what does your day consist of?

We wake up, shower, get dressed. I don’t sit around in sweats. I want the feeling I’m ready for work. We are organized about meals, which adds to the day’s structure. And we build in some time to exercise. It gets us out of the house. We go to the park or bike. I also do something fun. Last night I did a group Zoom call with friends. We all had a cocktail together. It’s cheaper than a bar. I make sure to connect with people at the end of the day and I try to go to bed at the same time. That’s very anchoring.

How important is it to keep up appearances?

It’s crucial to feel put together. If you look put together you feel more in control. If you wear jewelry or makeup, put that on each day. Dress in the same clothing you’d be wearing if you went out socially.

What’s the best way to get along with family members or roommates?

If you have enough room, create designated space for each person, the same as animals would. Eke out your own private territory. Communication is critical. It’s good for everyone to share the same routine so everyone is working on a similar clock.

What’s your best advice for those of us who live alone?

You have to maintain social contact. Develop a buddy system with people who you check in with daily and are your support system. Maybe have a friend stay with you. I have a single friend who I walk with everyday so she knows that she has guaranteed social contact at least once a day.

Do Zoom or FaceTime where you can see each other. Anything that’s visual is really important for connection. A text can be impersonal. Send around jokes or funny emails or videos. A way to break isolation is to do something altruistic for someone else, like an elderly person in your building. Check up on them, maybe see if they need anything. That social connection makes you feel less cut off.

What are the signs of cabin fever? What can you do about it?

Feeling panic, antsy, claustrophobic. That’s when you have to leave the house and take a walk around the block. Or take deep breaths through the nose and then let it out slowly. Call a friend; share how you’re feeling. Cut down on your news consumption.

What is some personal advice you can share?

Be careful not to binge TV because that can be an escape. If certain people are making you anxious, take a step back from them. Humor is important. Watch funny movies, it’s a nice way to round out the day.

Is there a positive side to this?

This might revolutionize the American workplace.

If you’ve always wanted to work off-site, when things go back to normal, you could ask your boss about continuing to do so.

This could teach you to be more adaptive and creative, and you might discover new interests as you try to fight the boredom. Reconnecting and turning to families, I think, is very positive. This is also teaching us to think about what really matters.