Health and Science

It's not impossible to live under a lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • Living under lockdown entails weeks of uncertainty, but it gets better, writes one reporter living in Beijing.
A local resident and member of the neighborhood committee stands at the gate to control entry and exit from a residential area on February 21, 2020 in Beijing, China.
Kevin Frayer | Getty Images

So you're about to be shut in. You've stocked the fridge. You're working from home. The kids are bouncing off the walls. 

Now that much of the world has imposed some restriction on movement, I thought I would share some thoughts on questions from friends and family that may be useful.  While reporting on the pandemic from Beijing for the past eight weeks, I've been living under a lockdown, too.

Steel yourself for weeks of uncertainty and stress of the unknown. But from those of us who have been coping with the threat of the coronavirus since January, please know this: It gets better. 

Do you take your shoes off at the front door? 

Yes, but I live in Asia and it is a cultural habit. What's more important I think is that I wash my hands right when I walk into the house. I find myself flipping light switches on with a knuckle, an elbow, a key, or the back of my hand. Then, it is straight to the sink to wash up. 

No, you don't have to get naked in the garage (unless you want to)

Scientists are still researching the coronavirus, but at this point, there have been several studies that say the virus can live on surfaces (mainly hard ones) for two to three days, maybe longer. Some research, like a recent study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health, suggests the virus can be airborne in certain conditions for up to three hours, though the exact timing is still up for debate. 

So I act on the assumption that I can carry the virus into my home but can also kill it. I toss my clothes into the wash every day. I have spent every weekend since the outbreak disinfecting my house. I regularly sanitize areas where I either prepare or eat food such as my kitchen counter and dining table. The same goes for my remote controls and gadgets. Ultimately, though, I think how often you disinfect and where depends on how much traffic you have in your home.  Health officials say the most common way the virus spreads is through respiratory droplets.  

Can I use my dishes, and do you order take-out?

Yes and yes. I definitely use paper or plastic products more than I used to at the office— cups, towels, cutlery— just to reduce having to share products with others. However, since I am not hosting lavish dinner parties at home, I use my dishes. Restaurants here have been washing dishes at higher temperatures of up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit as opposed to the usual 149 degrees. In China, it is quite common for restaurants to have sanitizing machines. So if you have a dishwasher, you're golden. I don't have a dishwasher, so I wash my dishes in hot water by hand and then let them dry completely.

As for ordering take-out, I think this really depends on your personal comfort level with someone else handling your food, the extent of the virus spread in your part of the world, and your own risk profile for the disease.  I am comfortable ordering out from time to time from restaurants that I know well.

Do you wear a mask at home?

No. I don't know anyone who does unless they have company (like a CNBC crew tromping around the house!) Masks are uncomfortable, and I find they aren't so easy to breathe in for long periods. In China, the government strongly advises wearing masks for most of the country (to the point where everyone wears one) and outright mandates them for the most affected area of Wuhan. In the U.S., CDC has said that masks aren't as effective in preventing a person from catching the virus but help the sick from spreading it.

You've seen this movie before. Anything else I should expect?

One thing that I think has been sorely underestimated is how serious a mental strain the virus puts on each and every one of us.  The uncertainty is relentless. Attempting to protect yourself and your loved ones when the science is changing and while you're worrying about your work, your children's schooling, and your day-to-day life is exhausting. You will find yourself at home trying to read a spreadsheet when your kids are fighting in the living room day after day after day. In my own residential complex, I have seen people break out into shouting matches with security guards. Couples quarreling. A woman wandering aimlessly in her pajamas carrying a vacuum cleaner.  Everyone is on edge. Everyone is trying to manage their own situation.  And there is no respite.

So find ways to nourish your mental health and not feel overly confined. If you have a backyard, sit outside. Take a walk if you can.  Call your family and friends. Know that your patience will be tested. 

If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it is that it serves as a reminder that we are all connected. In China, the onerous lockdowns and requirements force us to think not only of ourselves but of the welfare of our family, colleagues, and neighbors.  If I get sick, my colleagues and other residents in my building likely will all be quarantined. 

The restrictions in other countries might not become as draconian as in China.  But the lessons are the same— seemingly inconsequential decisions we make can have a big impact on someone else's life. If you have elderly parents or grandparents or ever had a friend who has recovered from cancer, the last thing you would want for them is to catch COVID-19 if you could stop it. 

At least that's how I feel. 

So please take care.  And remember that every day brings us closer to when normal life will return.