LONDON: Holding a spoonful of peanut butter in each hand — one for me, one for the dog — I explained to him the various tasks we had to accomplish that day. He needed to be a good boy if we were to get through it all. We’d play ball for a full hour before dinner if so. I was a bit wound up. He slurped in agreement. Good boy.
It was my fourth day stuck at home and the lack of human contact appeared to be taking its toll. Welcome to the weird world of self-isolation.
Following a surge in coronavirus cases in Italy — the worst outbreak of the virus outside of Asia — the FT requested that all staff who had recently travelled to the country work from home for 14 days. At the time of writing, more than 3,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Italy and more than 100 people have died.
Though the outbreak had been limited to the country’s north, and I had been in Rome, human resources (HR) wasn’t taking any chances.
ERRING ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION
I doubt my quarantine is necessary, though I appreciate my employer’s prudence. The UK government has warned that a fifth of the workforce could be absent if the coronavirus continues to spread. These are troubling times, and it’s best to be cautious.
People are on edge and I’d rather my colleagues have peace of mind, especially those with young children. Plus, there are worse sentences than house arrest with a seemingly endless supply of snacks and the company of a miniature dachshund. And I can wear leggings.
As my self-imposed exile began, I felt confident that I had nothing to worry about. I travelled with my partner. His employer issued similar guidance regarding travel to Italy, but, as Rome was not affected, deemed it safe for him to go to work.
The same for the five others we travelled with. So while I was at home tapping away on my laptop, I found it oddly comforting knowing that they were out in the wild, using the tube, spreading and acquiring germs as usual and that this was not cause for concern for the large organisations that employ them.
Hence any initial fears I had were quite shallow. I figured there was a good chance I’d get a bit fat. I joked that I might lose my mind. It turns out I’ve done a bit of both.
NEW FOUND TIME
Being alone most of the day elicits strange behaviour, especially when left in the company of a dog and an internet connection. Time spent commuting has been replaced with mainlining news stories. I had to cut myself off Twitter to avoid the endless, incremental developments.
I’ve done way too much googling: of both coronavirus and utter nonsense. I’ve become irrationally annoyed with how inaccurate Apple’s weather app is as I plan dog walks around work, rain and avoiding people. And, being a chronic worrier, I’ve found myself waiting for symptoms to arrive — despite knowing that I am fine.
It’s been 12 days without even a sniffle, though a minor coughing fit the other day made the blood drain from my body in fear. It was a bit of crisp stuck in my throat. The only ailment I’m truly experiencing is back pain from not sitting at a proper desk, and if it weren’t for the bizarre juice cleanse I attempted on day two, possibly scurvy.
ADDING ON THE CARBS
I’ve done a lot of snacking and then some. I’m sure freelancers can relate. I don’t know if it’s because of stress, boredom or solitude. But I’ll inevitably open a cupboard for a bite of chocolate or a cracker — something to tide me over as I work my way to the fridge — only to realise that whatever I’m looking for is already gone - I finished an entire container of hummus while writing this piece.
My isolation diet has me mostly indulging my Italian roots. Being at home means the oven or hob can be left on all day. A slow-cooked Sunday sauce in the middle of the week? Don’t mind if I do. During the Black Death, quarantined Florentines received a daily allowance of two loaves of bread and a pint of wine. I’ve mirrored my carb and alcohol intake accordingly. A modern-day Medici.
Isolation is also, well, isolating. Days at home feel disjointed and disconnected. Stress and anxiety seem amplified by being alone.
I’m relieved when my partner arrives home and saves me from monologuing to myself or quizzing the dog, who I now worry too much about too. I fear he’s depressingly bored, or possibly developing Stockholm syndrome. He’s already very attached to us, but lately I’ve been falling asleep with him stretched out at my feet . . . and waking up with the hound on my head. It turns out house arrest elicits strange behaviour in other creatures too.
READ: Commentary: How did a dog catch COVID-19? Until we know more, pet owners should take preventive steps
Psychologists say isolation has profound effects on the body and brain and can lead to anxiety and panic attacks, increased levels of paranoia, and being less able to think clearly.
I had the jitters after just a few days. People (and dogs) are social animals. We don’t function or behave normally without our packs. I’m nervous about being absent from work for so long, despite being in frequent contact and working normal, if not longer hours.
As much as technology connects us, there’s a lot to be said for being present. I miss being in the office, seeing and catching up with colleagues and getting stuff done in person. And I almost miss not wearing athleisure.
As I near the end of my HR-requested exile, my advice is to be prepared and remain calm if you too need to isolate.
Try to maintain some perspective. The vast majority of people who have contracted COVID-19 have quickly recovered. A newly acquired cough is more likely to be a conventional one (or from a hastily eaten crisp).
Fill your cupboards with a few favourite pantry items and indulge a little. It’s fine to get a bit fat. Just try not to lose your mind.
Niki Blasina is Deputy Editor of the FT Globetrotter at the Financial Times.