Lucy Hamilton: Lessons Learned From a Month in Quarantine

Lucy Hamilton was cat sitting for a colleague in the Chinese province of Zhejiang when she got a text from her boss – work next week was cancelled. This was the beginning of a month-long coronavirus quarantine for Lucy, Dave and the cats. Read on to find out how she coped with being cooped up, and the lessons she’s learnt in lockdown.

Valentine card in quarantine

On the 24th January 2020, I woke up in our 12th floor apartment in China with the New Year holiday ahead of me. It meant five days of no teaching, no evening commute, time to focus and finish my thesis corrections. My fiancé, Dave, was spending the week in the UK- a quick catch-up with friends and family and some wedding preparations – I was staying in China to cat-sit for a colleague. Nowhere would be open, no shops, gyms or restaurants. And I couldn’t wait! A whole week just for me, completely free of distractions (because, naturally, the cats are Mandarin speakers).

A few days later, I had a message from my boss… we would not be returning to work on the 29th. In an effort to contain a virus outbreak in Wuhan, 400 miles away, governments had extended the holiday to the 3rd February. Those visiting family in rural villages were urged not to return to the city. Flights into China began to be cancelled.

Because The Great Firewall of China limits our access to news sites, ironically, people at home were hearing more about Coronavirus than I was. When my VPN finally connected, my social media accounts were swamped. I found the panic bizarre. Yes, Dave had made his flight. He’d arrive back in Ningbo yesterday and was here, emptying a litter tray. No, he hadn’t been detained in Hong Kong quarantine.

But then recommendations turned to legal restrictions. Medical masks sold out. Public transport shut down. Businesses and schools were prohibited from reopening. Things were about to get cosy…

Group forums on WeChat (Chinese WhatsApp) our primary source of information, we learned restrictions were tightening. Now, only one person from each household could leave every two days to get supplies and drinking water from a shop half-an-hour away. Soon, our (many) games of Scrabble became a battle for the privilege…

And here we are now. It’s been over a month since Chinese New Year, and still we’re off work, teaching our lessons online. Things are getting better. New outbreaks in our province, Zhejiang, are declining. Yesterday, we were allowed out of our building together! It’s great, obviously, to have our freedom again and that a cure for the virus seems on the horizon. At the same time though, I’m finding myself strangely sad that it’s nearly over. I’ve actually learned a lot from this odd little lockdown. Here are the top 5 lessons I’ll take away…

1) It’s hard to run a 10km in a medical mask
Five days with no gym, I could just about manage; there’s a running track by our apartment block, I have a resistance band, and a skipping rope. But the extension to closures set alarm bells ringing. For almost four years now, I’ve been “in recovery” from anorexia. I’ve made the gym my focus, and I’m proud of where I’m at. The last thing I wanted was to lose the muscle I’ve been building and to find myself compensating for not-lifting heavy weights. But I’ve done alright! I’ve kept eating, and I didn’t even stress when Dave baked focaccia (well, not that much). Yesterday, I smashed a 10km on the track, and I’m still aching from a body-weight workout the day before. I’ve learned I don’t need to push myself to extremes to feel good. I can’t wait to get back to an actual gym, but I’ll stop beating myself up if I need a lighter day.

2) You should care that people care
These days, I’ve almost given up on social media, besides messaging friends and family on rare occasions it connects. But that day when I woke up to a million messages, I’ll own up- I indulged in a minor Facebook rant. People I hadn’t spoken to for months were sending messages, links to the website, recommending we drop everything and ‘get out while we still can’. I think, more than anything, I was frustrated by the lack of information. Our bosses were saying sit tight, UK news: zombie apocalypse. I told our families to stop worrying, they were being hysterical. But when the messages did stop, I found myself wondering: ‘don’t they care anymore?’ and asking why my old manager hadn’t checked I was okay. So, this is half lesson, half apology. The following day, I found his email in my junk. When you live abroad it’s easy to think people have forgotten you, in the end it’s nice to know that isn’t the case.

3) It’s important to ‘mix-it-up’ This has been our token phrase of lockdown. One particular morning stands out: we woke up, fed the cats, made the coffee, and I opened my laptop, but I couldn’t bring myself to sit down. ‘I can’t do it! I can’t sit in this same stupid chair, at this same stupid table, with this same stupid thesis’. I’m told my language was more colourful… I took a rare morning off. It’s embarrassingly mundane, but the lesson is valuable. When you can’t change the big things, focus on what you can. Go wild, work in your bedroom, save your banana for lunch time.

4) Silken tofu makes a great vegan carbonara
A small but excellent lesson. I won’t share a recipe, it’s 2020 and you’re probably reading this from Sheffield; you have access to Google. I can only use Bing.

5) Sometimes, I make my own stress
Before this whole lockdown, the mere thought of a month in one room would have been too much. I’d have signed up for a marathon, begun another PhD, and booked a spontaneous flight to Kenya (that last one’s been known to happen). But knowing that I couldn’t go out, even if I wanted to, actually made the whole thing easier. I was no longer criticising myself for what I should be doing, because I really had no choice. Instead, I could enjoy spending hours in the kitchen, writing for fun again, and watching movies with Dave. (Although Groundhog Day felt a little too familiar.)

There’s one person (and two little creatures) I need to thank in all of this. We’ve had Dave’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, and our anniversary all in lockdown. Good news: the summer wedding is still on! He’s put up with my nonsense, fetched me countless Sprite Zeros, and endured my painfully long turns in Scrabble. He’s kept my meltdowns to a minimum, removed cats from my home workouts, and been a scrupulous tester for my experiments in ramen.

So, to Dave, Gnocchi and BiangBiang – thanks team, it’s been a blast.

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