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Lessons From the Future: Advice From People Who Have Been Living With the Threat of COVID-19 for Weeks

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Before COVID-19 swept across western Europe and caused schools and bars to close across the United States, it threatened East and Southeast Asia.

Millions of Americans and Europeans are now learning to cope with changes to their daily lives brought on by coronavirus precautions—changes that have been a reality since January or February across mainland China and in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.

For weeks, in many places across Asia, children have been home from school, employees have been working from home and people have been learning to conduct their lives amid the outbreak.

With that in mind, here is some advice for staying safe, healthy and productive through the disruption and danger of COVID-19—from people who have already experienced it.

Keep things in perspective

“You’re not alone. Your fears are not atypical. Knowing that this too shall pass, just like those newborn days with your kids, that’s an important message. This isn’t the beginning of the end. Keeping that perspective, and also humor has really helped me… Like recognizing that I’m wearing a mask, stockpiling toilet paper, and that this is ridiculous, right?”

— Stephanie Young, 39, therapist and mother of two in Hong Kong

Make sure your kids are active, occupied and well-rested

“No matter what age they are, kids absolutely need to get some physical activity in their day. I make it a point every day that all three [of my kids] have to go outside, even if just for a walk or to ride their bikes. I also make [my kids] have little exercise breaks between their online classes if they can, like 50 jumping jacks or 20 squats…

It’s good to keep your kids a little busy. If they’re bored, they get frustrated and that’s when they have their tantrums. Even if school doesn’t necessarily have online work for them, you can find something basic for their age, whether it’s math or language or science related… And it’s definitely important to have a routine, to keep a normalcy.”

— Nicole Serje, 43, of Hong Kong, whose three children have been home from school since January

“I would suggest that the most important part of the routine is the inclusion of mindful breaks away from the screen and sedentary seated time. At school, children are often on the move, not just at break and lunch play, but when relocating from class to class and also within the classroom itself. This needs to be replicated as much as possible at home to ensure there is movement throughout the child’s day. This may take the form of short mini brain breaks, mindfulness, yoga, free play, structured exercise, rest and sleep.”

Luke Schroder, 38, grade school teacher from the U.K. living in Hong Kong

Talk to your kids about COVID-19

“Obviously it’s highly age-dependent. With your younger school-aged kids it’s acknowledging the facts around what a virus is, and comparing it to other things they’re familiar with in school. Here in Asia we have discussions of hand foot and mouth [disease] and head lice is everywhere. All of those things that are highly contractable and contagious that they’re familiar with already is probably a good place to start and won’t amplify this to make it seem scary. I’m really cognizant of [my boys’] media access and what they hear the adults talking about. That’s another one: just limiting the overhearing helps.

The older kids, I’m teaching high school kids, their access to information is so intense and immersive that parents just have to try to mitigate that in some way, or at least balance it because they get all the headlines just as much as we do.”

— Stephanie Young, 39, therapist and mother of two in Hong Kong

Practice social distancing, but don’t isolate yourself

“I wish I had known how key social distancing is for containing COVID-19. Unfortunately, we are seeing the impact of national containment measures not being enacted quick enough in the West. Considering this late response and how highly contagious COVID-19 is, I would have tried to warn more friends and family members back in the U.S. to start practicing social distancing as soon as possible...

For practicing social distancing without being totally isolated socially, I recommend having regular tele-meetups with friends—arrange lunches, coffee chats, or even workouts over FaceTime. Mental health check-ins via telephone or video with friends and family members are great.”

— Shereen Ayub, 30, who was quarantined in her Beijing home for 14 days

Read more: What Is ‘Social Distancing?’ Here’s How to Best Practice It as Coronavirus Spreads

Keep your hands to yourself

“When you’re outside, try not to touch things. People may have sneezed on their hands and touched the surroundings, and the germs can last for days. When you touch it, and you bring your hands to a mucosal surface (like your eyes, nose and mouth), then you could get the disease. You can use a tissue to push door handles or [elevator] buttons for example, so that you’re not in contact with any potential bacteria directly. If you are not near a sink, use hand sanitizer.”

— TT Chan, 26, medical worker at a Hong Kong hospital

A traffic reminder to maintain personal hygiene greets drivers on a Los Angeles freeway on Mar. 16, 2020.Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images

Read more: The Secret to Keeping Your Kids Happy, Busy and Learning if Their School Closes Due to Coronavirus

Cancel your travel plans

I really encourage people not to travel at this time. It’s quite risky to travel, especially these few weeks when it’s already spreading to all countries worldwide. I think the most worrying thing is that when you travel out there are no travel restrictions, but when you come back maybe there is and you need to quarantine yourself. The situation is changing quickly and you don’t know whether the policy will be tightened and maybe you can’t go back to work.”

— Wilson Hung, 41, who had to self-isolate for 14 days in Taipei, Taiwan after returning from a four-day vacation to Japan

“Be prepared for the possibility that mass closures, including schools, could be extended and your current home routine could be a new normal for the foreseeable future. Cancel any upcoming travel plans—besides the fact that there may be airline cancellations and more tightened travel restrictions on Americans flying in and out of other countries (and perhaps restrictions for domestic travel), the biggest reason everyone needs to take containment measures seriously is to protect those most at risk of being severely affected by COVID-19, and to spare the healthcare system from a possible overload.”

— Shereen Ayub, 30, who was quarantined in her Beijing home for 14 days

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
A passenger waits for his train at an almost empty platform at Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro station in Washington, D.C. on Mar. 16, 2020.Alex Wong—Getty Images

Create a distraction-free work space at home

I recommend creating a physical separation between your work and home life. For me, I’ve repurposed a section of my apartment as my work space. And when I’m in my work space, I’m working. When I leave it, then that’s a break. It’s the place I use to hold myself accountable.“

— Ashton Smalling, 25, English teacher from Texas living in Seoul, South Korea

“Give yourself breaks. Not just lunch breaks, but time to just get out of your chair, look out the window and come back with a more focused mind. Otherwise you could get burned out very easily and lose motivation.”

— Jeremy Tan, 28, copywriter in Singapore

Read more: How to Stay Productive When Working From Home

If you’re in quarantine, don’t stress yourself out

“I’d encourage people to take some deep breaths and really come to terms with the idea that you’re just going to be alone for a couple of weeks. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. With the right mindset, people can embrace this as a sanctuary. It’s a good time for people to pamper themselves, to do things that you normally don’t have time to do because you’re racing around with work, school and taking care of your kids. Try to stay busy with things that bring you some joy. It’s when people sit and get too deep in their heads that they start to think bad things.”

— Sarah Arana, 53, who spent 12 days quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, followed by a 14-day quarantine at Travis Air Force Base, Calif.

Stay on top of the latest news, but don’t fixate on it 24/7

“Knowing what measures are in place in your local community is important. You want to know whether your library, your post office is open before making a wasted trip for example. But it’s not healthy to be watching the news all the time. Turn off the news, put on some Netflix, read a book, occupy your mind with other things. Life still goes on.”

— Mandy Chan, 33, administrative assistant in Hong Kong

Additional reporting by Laignee Barron and Amy Gunia in Hong Kong, Charlie Campbell in Shanghai and Louise Watt in Taipei, Taiwan

Correction: March 18

The original version of this story misspelled Shereen Ayub’s first name. It is Shereen, not Ahereen.

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Write to Hillary Leung / Hong Kong at hillary.leung@time.com