Ten tips from a COVID quarantine survivor

At the end of January, the city where my family and I live overseas had an influx of COVID-19 cases, leading to a two week quarantine-at-home order issued by the local government. We spent 6 weeks in self-quarantine before that order was lifted…and are now still mostly at home from an abundance of caution. For our friends and family around the world who are now just entering shelter-at-homes and quarantines, here’s some lessons we’ve learned–lessons learned from things we did that were helpful, unhelpful, or failed to do. Here’s ten tips to make your self-quarantine a bit better:

1. Establish a helpful rhythm

Self-quarantine is a massive disruption to your life patterns, but it is essential to establish new patterns and habits. It’ll help you feel more in control of at least part of your life, help your kids feel secure, and be a stabilizing influence. Don’t let yourself sleep in, stay in your PJs half the day (well, maybe give yourself one PJ day 😉), veg out, and stay up late. Establish patterns helpful to your health, including plenty of sleep–and don’t forget about exercise either, though you might have to be a bit creative to do it at home. Most importantly, ensure that your rhythm includes time for spiritual care–especially in a time of great stress and fear, facing the possibility of death, you need to care for your soul.

2. Detach from the news and social media

It’s easy in a crisis to feel like you “need” to keep up on the news 24/7, but this will do nothing to help your mental health. In fact, if you’re quarantining at home, your biggest risk isn’t from COVID, it’s from a breakdown of mental health. So do not stay up on every bit of COVID news and don’t spend time aimlessly on social media with its misinformation. You only need to know enough to know if you need to change your behavior. So set a timer for 15-20 minute timer, read a trusted news source, and then unplug from news and social media–if you must, do this twice a day, but do NOT let yourself get sucked in. Funny, after I wrote this I found out that the WHO made this exact recommendation.

Update: I got some great feedback from an ex-pat: don’t only cut this out, replace it with something that relaxes you: music, lit candles, a relaxing bath, prayer, a nap, etc.

3. Get some fresh air

Follow all your local recommendations and regulations, and follow this based on your own local risk–but there’s nothing better when you’re cooped up than going outside for some fresh air and sunshine. Take your family, leave your phone, and be refreshed for a bit. Stress and fear disappear with the beauty of a sunset, the call of a robin, the feel of a rainstorm, or the smell of a cherry blossom. Remember that there is more beauty in this world than is COVID fear or panic. Consider going out early in the morning or late at night to reduce exposure to others–but do go out for your own sanity.

If you’re in a densely populated area, going out could be risky or illegal–if so, so go to the roof, out on your balcony, or, at minimum, open a window. It will do wonders.

4. Focus on your sphere of influence, not your sphere of concern

It’s natural to be concerned about things that could affect us, but there are fewer things you can influence and even fewer you can actually control. You may be concerned about the spread of COVID in the nation (sphere of concern), but you can’t control it, so don’t focus your effort there. Instead, focus on what you can control–staying inside–and what you can influence–encouraging your family and friends to do so. Giving mental energy to your concerns over which you have no control will stress you–instead, focus on what you can influence and you can actually do some good. BTW, your political rant online? Probably does no one good, including yourself, and won’t actually change a thing. Just saying.

6. Help others

Who’s in your sphere of influence or control that you can help? Who do you know that is high risk and would appreciate a grocery run? Who do you know that lost a job and needs groceries, a ride, help budgeting, or their utility bill anonymously paid for the next 6 months? Who do you know that is working from home and needs babysitting? What medical professionals do you know that would be blessed by organizing a meal train so they can focus on saving lives? Go go something. Don’t veg out.

7. Reach out

Especially when you’re isolated and home quarantined, you need community now more than ever. You need people to tell you that you’re becoming fearful—or that you’re not concerned enough! Call your loved ones and FaceTime your grandparents. Go through your phone book and call 5 random people to make sure they’re ok. Reconnect with a lost friend. The most heartbreaking stories I’ve read are those of families whose loved ones passed away while hospitalized and quarantined, unable to see or talk with their family in their last days. Make sure that’s not you or your loved ones.

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8. Invest in yourself and your family

You have far more time with your family than normal–or far more down time than normal! Either way, you could waste it or you could steward it to grow yourself and your family. What hobby have you or your kids always wanted to develop? What book have you always want to read by yourself or with your kids? What skill do you want to learn or teach your kids? What new game do you want to play with your kids? What new recipe have you wanted to try? Grow. Invest. Thrive. Don’t just survive. Take advantage of your local library–most offer free audiobook & ebooks via free apps. We finished reading as a family the excellent Chronicles of Narnia (Amazon, Apple Books), my wife got caught up some parenting podcasts, I read the incredible tale of Shackleton’s survival on the Endurance (wow, take about survival!), and I started The Prepared Expat, which I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time. What are you gonna do?

9. Learn how you were unprepared

Our life, economy, and supply chains are incredibly fragile and likely left you unprepared in this crisis. So keep track now of what you would do differently if you could go back 6 months ago–and learn from it, because another crisis will come. Here’s my list of things I wish I had done differently:

  • Have better first aid & medical supplies at home, including masks. During the COVID crisis, we did *not* want to go out or to go to the hospital, but we realized we didn’t have sufficient medical supplies to self-care for a month. These are still plentiful online, so get one if you don’t have one. If you use prescription medications, make sure you have a large supply of them.
  • Have a bigger and better-stocked pantry. Stores operate on bare-minimum just-in-time stock that is easily depleted in a time of crisis. So rather than trust others to bring you food and supplies, create a personal buffer of at least a month of food and supplies. We have 3 months of food because we’re in an earthquake zone. It’s not hard: buy flour, oil, sugar, salt, beans, and rice–they’re cheap, have a shelf life of 5-20 years, and will keep you alive in a crisis. I’ll share more in the future how to easily and cheaply build up your emergency food reserves, so stay tuned!
  • Guarantee your water supply. Our water delivery system was disrupted because the workers running it were quarantined–not good. That would have meant we had no safe water except that we had water and water filters on hand. At minimum, I’d say you need a week’s worth of bottled water–a good rule of thumb is 1 gallon (4 liters) per person per day–and have a means of purifying more. If you’re looking for an inexpensive but excellent water filter, I highly recommend the Sawyer water filtration system (and just bought a couple for my sisters). Also excellent for individuals or on-the-go purposes are the LifeStraw and Steripen.
  • Have back-up energy sources. We are fortunate that nothing else went wrong and we didn’t lose power–but I wish we would have had a backup energy plan in case of electrical failure. I’ll be sharing ex-pat friendly solutions in the future, so stay tuned.
  • Build a bigger emergency fund. We are thankful that we had savings we could use to buy food, get masks shipped to us, and then be generous towards others–but we also faced the possibility of needing to evacuate on extremely expensive flights, so we’ll be increasing our savings. If this crisis has been a financial wakeup call to you, or if you don’t have 3-6 months of living expenses saved,, I HIGHLY recommend you follow Dave Ramsey’s plan laid out in his book The Total Money Makeover (highly recommended), complete his Financial Peace class, or listen to his free radio show or podcast. He’s helped millions of folks get out of debt and he gave us a clear path towards financial wisdom and peace–can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • Ex-pat specific things:
    • Renew passports sooner. The general advice is to renew your passports 6 months before expiration, but that’s bad advice. Renew them 12-18 months before, when you’re not in a crisis–the last thing you want is to be in a crisis and have to fly to renew your passport. We had to do that–and then wait for the new passports to come back while shipping and embassies shut down. We faced a very real possibility of evacuating…without our passports. Never again.
    • Live on a residency permit, not a tourist visa. My wife and I are on long-term 10 year visas with generous “stays” each time we enter the country–but our stay is nearly up and all border countries are closed, so there’s no place to do a border run and we faced a 50+ flight returning to the US. Fortunately we were able to extend our visa, but we’ll be actively working for a residence permit that makes it less likely we have to leave in the middle of a crisis!

10. Prepare for the long haul

Make the mental assumption that you’ll be self-quarantining for 2 months, and you’ll be excited if it only lasts 6 weeks. But if you think you’ll be home 2 weeks and then everything goes back to normal…well, to quote one of the best movies of all time, get used to disappointment. Most governments have announced 2 weeks of shelter-in-place and then nearly all of them extended it for another 3-4 weeks–its better politics than telling people the quarantine is gonna be 2 months. But for you? Prepare for the worst and hope for the best and you’ll never be disappointed.

11. Bonus! For high risk areas: Make a plan to stay and a plan to leave

If you’re in an area hit card by COVID-19, think through your plan for staying and your plan for evacuating. With both plans, you’ll find that your fear decreases and you’re able to make a more wise decision; if you’ve only considered one option, you’ll default to that, not because it is a wiser course of action but because it’s the only one that’s viable. So take time now to consider both options.

My family faced two big crisis points when we had to decide to leave or stay. Read about how we used a 4-part paradigm to evaluate our true risk of staying or going and our plan for protecting ourselves if we had to travel. Subscribe to The Prepared Expat email list to stay tuned for more!

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If you’ve been all the way through a COVID-19 quarantine and have a suggestion to add, please leave a comment below to help others!

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