As social distancing measures (designed to limit face-to-face interaction and halt the spread of COVID-19) ramp up, and thousands of people around the world who are symptomatic or have been diagnosed with the disease undergo self-isolation, Stranger’s Guide looks at isolation and its impact—from a nurse who contracted SARS in 2003, to community isolation in the wake of natural disaster and enforced isolation in the Antarctic.
The day before the lockdown when I returned home from my work on the train, it was almost an apocalypse-like silence, and Wuhan has been silent for over two months except for ambulance sirens. I don’t see how this city can just return to its old-time glory, if I can put it this way, just overnight.
—As told to Shawn Yuan, “Wuhan awakens from two months of coronavirus isolation,” Al Jazeera, March, 2020.
It was when I was isolated that my mood took a turn for the worse. My family wasn’t allowed to visit me as a protective measure for them. I grew depressed. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. Several colleagues who’d also been stricken with SARS underwent oxygen therapy. What would we need next, I wondered.
—Siva Sevakame, “We Beat SARS,” Singapore Government, Public Service Division, 2003.
When a natural disaster strikes, individuals within communities are uprooted from friends, family, and normal routines because of the destruction of their physical environment. Because the individual loses his/her purpose for living outside the context of the larger society, the immediate outcome (even prior to Durkheim’s outcome of suicide) will likely be psychological distress, including feelings of isolation resulting from the de-integration of society.
—Brent Teasdale et al., “The Effect of Hurricane Katrina on Adolescent Feelings of Social Isolation,” Social Science Quarterly, June 2013.
… living in this environment can be tough. The white landscape is monotonous, privacy is a luxury, and researchers interact with the same small group day in day out, for months on end. At times, it is not possible for provisions to be delivered, and visitors can’t be evacuated from the region even in emergencies, wrote the authors of the study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. And as infrastructure is more prone to breaking down than elsewhere on Earth, the ability to contact the outside world can be snatched away without warning, and not immediately fixed. The drop in mood and sleep disorders that many researchers experience in the coldest, darkest season has earned the name “winter-over syndrome.”
—Kashmira Gander, “Antarctic winters trigger psychological hibernation so people can cope with isolation and darkness,” Newsweek, December 5, 2018.
Winterers often work six days a week of double-digit hours. But for their downtime, the base has a gym, crafts room, library, and hydroponic greenhouse. “People are always volunteering to teach different classes, like yoga, dance, or even a foreign language,” [Peter] Rejcek says. “There’s usually a band or two that will form and play shows during the winter.” He explained that there are no bars at the South Pole, but there used to be a drinking spot called Club 90 South.
[Katy] Jensen found an even better way to pass the hours. “After sunset in March, there’s about a month of gradually darkening twilight, so every day you can walk outside and see more stars than you saw the day before. The moon is up above the horizon for two weeks at a time, so you swear you can watch it change phases. And the auroras!”
—Philip Sopher, “How to Survive Winter in Antarctica,” The Atlantic, February 15, 2015.
“Isolation here is associated with true geographical isolation,” [Dr. Kim Becher] said. “Since I have a lot of patients with no phone, I’ll have to leave a message with someone who then gets on a four-wheeler because roads aren’t passable and creeks have to be crossed in order to deliver that message. Our geography causes barriers that contribute to the feelings of isolation and loneliness for some of my patients.”
—Kay Miller Temple, MD, “Social isolation and loneliness: Insights from rural clinic providers and other experts,” Rural Health Information Hub, July 10, 2019
The long, dark days of Alaskan winters only add to the feeling of isolation. On our shortest days we only got 5 hours of light. This means a lot of time spent inside, which is probably why everyone is asking us if we have cabin fever. Luckily we have the internet, and winter gave us time to catch up on all our shows that we missed while working on our homestead this summer. Along with video games, we also have been doing a lot of research to prepare for summer. Especially research regarding raising pigs and dealing with bears. Hungry bears around the homestead is not something I’m excited for. We also have our daughter to hang out with. Watching her learn new things is endlessly entertaining!
—“Dealing with isolation and Alaskan winters,” Sled Dog Slow blog, 13 March, 2017.
“… one and all need social intercourse, as the thing most essential to pleasant living, after food, fuel, shelter, and clothing. An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives. … The reason is not far to seek. These people came from cheery little farm villages. Life in the fatherland was hard and toilsome, but it was not lonesome. Think for a moment how great the change must be from the white-walled, red-roofed village on a Norway fjord, with its church and schoolhouse, its fishing-boats on the blue inlet, and its green mountain walls towering aloft to snow fields, to an isolated cabin on a Dakota prairie.”
—E. V. Smalley, “The Isolation of Life on Prairie Farms,” Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 72 (1893)
For my Italian friends, “air” means social interactions on any platform about anything but crisis news. Pleasant distractions, serious conversations about the future, how this experience might change us, further afield topics from art and culture, even philosophy. Through the years, I’ve often found that my Italian (and French) friends are more likely to connect their professional and personal lives to philosophical considerations.
—Robert Wolcott, “Coronavirus Insights From Italy: Isolate And Keep Your Friends Close,” Forbes, 19 March, 2020.