ROME—As Italy’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown enters its second week, the messages on my chat threads have changed from “Do you think we can go outside to exercise?” to “Does anyone know a hair stylist willing to risk getting fined to make house calls?” While everyone was busy hoarding toilet paper and pasta, it seems most of us forgot about ourselves, and now it’s too late.
I’m one of 60 million people on lockdown in Italy for a week now. I’m lucky to have the company of my teenage son, and two balconies here in Rome, but there are so many things I wish I had known before we locked down. I hoarded mostly the wrong things—in fact, I can get almost anything I need from the grocery store below my apartment. I didn’t think about entertainment beyond what’s online, and I wish I had bought some seedlings, gotten a haircut, and had what is now a dull toothache checked out.
One can imagine that when the lockdown is lifted, which is currently slated for April 3 but most likely to be extended, we’ll come out of it looking like rugged mountain people who haven’t seen civilization in years, with hair down to our knees and God knows what other personal grooming totally abandoned.
Cases continue to soar. There were nearly 28,000 total cases by Monday, with nearly 3,500 new cases in the last 24 hours alone, not to mention 2,158 total deaths overall. It’s hard to think this will end any time soon.
All lockdowns will look different depending on the country and severity of the novel coronavirus outbreak, but under Italy’s draconian measures, hair salons, sporting goods shops, gyms and spas were the first things to shutter up. Now a hair stylist risks fines and even jail time going to someone’s house to sneak in a root touch-up, and personal trainers are strictly prohibited from visiting clients. In Italy, we aren’t even supposed to go next door for a coffee.
Beauty, of course, is only skin deep, and one may wonder why you should care how you look if you are hunkered down. But the psychological impact of isolation makes it even more important to try to put yourself together each day and soldier on, even if the only person who will see you is in the mirror.
The best way to prepare for the greater constraints that are coming is to think beyond what you need that cannot be delivered. Trace everything you do for 48 hours and focus on what you still need to go outside for. In Italy, we can still go to the grocery store and Amazon is still delivering, although there is always an uncomfortable pause when the masked, gloved courier asks for a signature for the delivery.
Stop thinking about groceries—even in Wuhan people always got food. It’s the basic services we all take for granted that are among the first to go. Any treatment that is going to take multiple sessions should likely be put off until later. Dentists, chiropractors and physical therapists are only taking patients in emergency situations in Italy now. Mild toothache? Get it looked at or good luck dealing with it later.
It would be a good time to test personal infrastructure. If you rely on weekly sessions with your counselor, you should test your video capabilities well in advance so you don’t add further stress with a technical glitch.
Many schools are already on lockdown across the world, but if you aren’t there yet, it’s a good time to make sure your internet is up to speed and that your kids have a place to “go to school” that isn’t in the middle of the living room. There is nothing worse for them than having to ask a biology question on human reproduction while mom and dad are fighting in the background or a younger sibling is wailing in the same room.
Gyms have been closed for several weeks in Italy by now, but mine still offers classes through Zoom. If it’s important to stay in shape, make sure you have the weights, kettlebells, and other equipment like a TRX you need before it’s too late. Same goes for art supplies, music speakers and batteries. You don’t want to waste valuable grocery shopping time—likely limited in terms of time you can spend inside a store—trying to remember if the remote takes AA or AAA.
For those living in single-family houses with big yards, the crisis might pass more easily. But millions of people confined to apartments will have to figure out a way to get fresh air without going out. If you’ve got a balcony on your apartment, buy some seeds, plants and paint so you can spend some valuable outdoor time productively. Garden centers aren’t likely to be included in the list of essential services when things start to clamp down. For those with just windows, think of filling your space with indoor plants. You’ll have plenty of time to care for them and they’ll cheer the place up.
Once on lockdown, the importance of keeping a routine is key. You don’t want to get in the rhythm of staying up all night and sleeping all day, especially as spring approaches. Natural light is key to keeping your mood up, even if it is just through the window. Go to bed early, then get up, shower, and dressed even if you are only going out to take the garbage. Exercise, meditate and, if you live alone, talk to people. Make sure people who do live alone are on your list of daily calls. The world has gone mute with messaging so pick up the phone and use your voice at least once a day.
The Lancet has just published a terrifying warning about the psychological impact of long-term quarantine which include PTSD-like symptoms. Those who are already suffering mental health issues will suffer the most. “Three studies showed that longer durations of quarantine were associated with poorer mental health specifically, post traumatic stress symptoms, avoidance behaviors, and anger,” the authors of the study wrote. Fears of infection, frustration and boredom can become toxic for those who need social interaction and reassurance from others that everything is going to be OK.
“Overall, this review suggests that the psychological impact of quarantine is wide ranging, substantial, and can be long lasting,” the Lancet authors write. “This is not to suggest that quarantine should not be used; the psychological effects of not using quarantine and allowing disease to spread might be worse.”
In my personal experience, life under lockdown is a terrible necessity, but there is no alternative or even Plan B, it seems, until this horror show ends. There are ways to make it less worse, and the first is to get your hair done while you still can.