By Aisha Ahmad
For many people, the Covid-19 pandemic is their first-ever experience of a system-wide disaster. With millions of people now under mandatory lockdown, a serious concern for academics and others is how to remain productive amid rapidly changing and frightening conditions.
How can scholars continue to write and research amid an intense and evolving disaster? What does a productive day and life look like under conditions of catastrophe?
As someone who has lived and worked in disaster conditions around the world, I have experience with both the challenges and opportunities that crises create. I am also blessed with knowledge of systemic fear, insecurity, and powerlessness. In this Covid-19 series, I offer my experience through concrete and practical counsel, with the goal of helping crisis neophytes adapt to life under sustained disaster conditions. There is a good chance that the pandemic will continue, and indeed worsen in some cities or countries in the weeks ahead. The purpose of this series is therefore not to simply react to conditions today, but to help you to live happily and productively under sustained disaster conditions.
This series is aimed at helping newcomers on that journey. Of course, I am only human and my knowledge is imperfect, but I have found calamity to be a great teacher. I offer my insights here in the hopes that they will benefit others. Take what you need, and leave the rest. This is also a judgment-free zone, as all of us are learning to cope with this new reality. I welcome readers who are new to crises to ask questions, and those who are experienced to share their own wisdom born of suffering.
To start this series, I now turn to the single most important thing a person should focus on in disaster conditions: security.
Episode 1: Security
The purpose of this series is to help you regain your ability to be a high performance scholar. To that end, you must, first and foremost, secure and stabilize your immediate home environment. For the weeks and months to come, this is the foundation upon which your entire life will be built. This essential work is more important than any other ongoing projects you have.
If you think this is like a sabbatical and are writing papers, stop. If you are wallowing in guilt because you are unable to work on your papers, stop. This is unhealthy thinking born out of denial. Your first responsibility is to pause, evaluate your physical environment, assess your essential supplies, have a team meeting with your immediate family, and make a strategic plan to ensure the security of your household over the next few months. Assume this pandemic will last for 18 months, and be pleasantly surprised if we escape sooner.
This is not a sabbatical. This is a global disaster. Your number one priority and responsibility right now is the security and welfare of you and your team.
As a team, you should address the following critical security areas: food, family, finances, health care, social infrastructure, space allocation, and physical fitness. I will write about each of these briefly here, and in more depth in future episodes of this series.
- Food Security
Having adequate food is critical for the security of your home. While the Covid-19 crisis has not affected the supply chain, panic buying and hysteria have created artificial shortages in many places, and physical distancing requirements have also limited the number of people allowed into grocery stores at any given time. For everyone, it will take more time and patience to get essential supplies. Your plan should accommodate the fact that this seemingly ordinary task is now challenging, and can be upsetting.
Next, without hoarding or panic, you should purchase a sensible prudent reserve of food. While the current situation demands that everyone have responsible supplies on hand, I offer suggestions here with a tight budget in mind. If you do not have a tight food budget, then consider buying an extra set of these supplies for the food bank and another one for your neighbour who just lost their job.
A reasonable, cost-effective prudent reserve looks like a 10lbs bag of rice, a 5 lbs bag of dried lentils or beans, and a large bag of frozen peas. These non-perishable supplies will go the distance and have considerable nutritional value. If larger stores are out of these supplies, try a smaller neighbourhood grocer. Be patient and slow, and try again. Once acquired, do not eat your prudent reserve unless you have to. Remember, the supply chain is fully intact, and you so you should save your rice and beans for an unexpected emergency. Just keep these basics on hand, and then make a reasonable weekly grocery plan within your budget, with significantly more time allocated for this task.
- Family Security
Your family are the people you love and are loyal to. Pandemic-induced restrictions might mean that you are physically separated from your loved ones, or it might mean that you are all trapped together in the same house. Both situations are stressful. Regardless of your family arrangement, you will need to coordinate and support each other as a team. Identify vulnerable family members, as well as those who are working in emergency and essential services. Their needs take precedence over any academic work you may have. Develop a sustainable strategy to ensure that they are supported, both physically and emotionally. Get granular on these details and then execute them. If you feel overwhelmed, make a call list or schedule to ensure that you check in with family members that may be isolated. Have emergency contact information on hand. Leave no one behind.
- Finances and Health Care
Identify who in your family network has been affected by the financial insecurity caused by the Covid-19 crisis. If you have been spared the consequences, redirect your resources to support your team. Offer to do grunt work and buy essentials. If your family has been spared these financial consequences, you are well positioned to help others.
Depending on where you live, you may also be concerned about access to health care. No matter what your family arrangement is, your best team strategy right now is to fiercely protect each other from this pandemic. Consider this a war. Your compliance with public health guidelines is your path to victory, and you should fight very hard for each other. This might mean not being able to see each other in person for some time, but channel your love and loyalty for each other into courage and steadfastness. While practicing distancing, try to ensure that your team has medicine, teas, and self-care products at home, in case they fall ill. Make time for frank conversations about vulnerable members of your family to maximize situational awareness, and make a strategic plan to help each other in case someone falls ill. Learn how public health and hospital restrictions may affect your plan, and adapt.
- Social Infrastructure
This pandemic has created conditions of social isolation that are psychologically stressful, even for academics who are used to working in solitude. Some people have joked that this situation is not like a war because we are just sitting at home. As someone who has seen quite a few conflict zones, I can assure you that life in a war zone is not just explosive bursts of violence. There is also restricted movement, cramped confinement, crippling boredom and loneliness, and terrifying uncertainty. There are closed schools and cancelled weddings. The psychological stress of these losses is real and legitimate, in both war and pandemic conditions. It is therefore necessary to build adequate social and psychological infrastructure to help you mitigate feelings of isolation and loss.
We are incredibly fortunate to live in a time where these challenges can be mitigated with the use of technology. There were times I sent paper letters to try to overcome my isolation, many which never reached their recipients. Today, we can find our family, friends, and community members online, all over the world. Plan meaningful digital social connections every single day. If your gym or yoga studio is offering awkward Facebook Live fitness classes from a basement, join in and thank your instructor. If your spiritual community is hosting an online service, take part and uplift others. If you need a 12-step meeting, there are already thousands of them on Zoom. If you have friends you miss, arrange a regular watch party, or a breakfast or book club on Google Hangout. If you have limited internet access, call someone every single day. Reach out to someone who is even more isolated and be there for them. Reject any and all negativity on social media, and use your Twitter and Facebook only to share your hope, courage, resilience, and joy. Your goal in this early period should be to set up and invest in this sustainable social infrastructure.
- Space Allocation and Management
With mandatory physical distancing restrictions, universities and schools have closed and academics have been asked to conduct teaching, research, and service commitments remotely. For many people, this has meant merging work and home spaces in ways that are suboptimal. Those with less space and more household members will naturally experience greater pressures. For academics who were already working from home, there may now be other family members who may be required to work remotely, and who are now putting pressure on your research space.
Losing your work space and routine will obviously undermine research productivity. It is futile to sit angrily on your couch or bed with a laptop, and it is selfish to take the best home workspaces just for yourself. Before you attempt any scholarly heavy lifting, invest time and resources in building dedicated workspaces that provide everyone on your team with a feeling of retreat and privacy. If you are sharing workspaces, have a team discussion about space allocation. Be mindful of the introverts and extroverts in the house, and discuss what everyone needs in order to feel safe and happy. Try to provide everyone with a separate retreat, dedicated for their own work and wellness.
Creatively build new spaces that you feel happy in. I live in a small downtown apartment. To accommodate my team, I bought and assembled a cheap small desk and re-jigged a tiny corner of my bedroom into a delightful study nook. I put a stylish pencil holder and a scented candle on it and it already feels like a retreat. I have designed these tiny workspaces in every challenging place I have lived, and they have always increased my productivity and happiness.
If you do not know how to do this, there are wonderful resources online about designing small home office spaces, even with seemingly impossible family arrangements. Put aside your academic reading and so some home decorating research. This will save you from wasted time and family fights. You can do miracles on a shoestring budget. If you cannot afford new furniture, a used or DIY option can work just as well. If you have an abundance of space and furniture, offer to help someone else.
Equally important is the maintenance of your home space. It is perfectly reasonable to spend more time cleaning and organizing your home than you normally would. Keeping your space sanitary will make you feel stable, and is good practice. Forget the fancy disinfectant wipes that are in short supply. A few rags, regular cleaning supplies, dish soap, and a cheap jug of bleach are more than enough to keep you all safe at home. Also, with more people at home, expect to dedicate far more time to regular cleaning and upkeep. Allocate these responsibilities equitably among your team.
You will be at home a lot, so make it a place that feels wonderful. Take a day to deep clean your house. Eliminate all clutter and organize your desk. Rearrange your workspaces so that they are neat and usable by other family members who are under pressure. Dedicate time every day to ensure that your home stays tidy and pleasant. At the end of each day, wrap up your workspace and put it out of sight, especially if you are using a repurposed or shared space. Shift modes. Set loving and respectful boundaries with the people on your team. Once you feel more in control over your home, it will be easier for you to feel like you can control your work life.
- Physical Fitness
Much like in war, pandemic-induced restrictions on mobility and community have serious effects on our health and wellbeing. The fact that community centres, gyms, public pools, and yoga studios are all closed is distressing for many people, especially those who rely on fitness for their mental health. In many places, there are even restrictions on public parks. Citizens required to shelter-in-place must stay indoors as much as possible, which can undermine our ability to care for our bodies. No matter how pretty we make our home workspaces, long periods of sitting can cause pain and even injury. These are not luxury problems and they should be taken seriously.
In my experience, maintaining fitness goals under disaster conditions is challenging, but very possible. Like everything else, this will be a transition. Do not expect to become an Olympic athlete in your living room. Online fitness classes might take awhile before they feel fun. For many of us, we will also have to repurpose our already limited and shared spaces into a fitness area. This can absolutely be done, but it may take time to get into a rhythm. Set reasonable expectations, achieve them, and then build on your success. Even if you are not regularly an active person, your brain chemistry will very likely be affected by sustained pandemic-induced restrictions, and physical exercise can help mitigate long-term mental health effects. At this stage, devise a modest, reasonable plan to do 20 minutes of physical activity every day. If you succeed, give yourself 500 gold stars. If you fail, give yourself 100 gold stars and try again tomorrow.
In this introductory piece, I have outlined some foundations for living happily and productively under sustained disaster conditions. If any of the above is outstanding for you and your family, put your academic work aside and redirect your energy. In the days ahead, your goal should be to establish the physical and psychological security in your home.
From next week onward, I will write more about academic productivity amid disaster conditions. Everything I share from here on will be built on these essential foundations of security and wellness. It is foolish to build a house on sand. If any of us feel unstable at any point, it is wisest to stop and go back to our foundations.
None of this can be done perfectly. My PhD supervisor used to remind us that “perfect is the enemy of the good”. This is also true in disaster conditions. None of us should try to get an A+ in crisis living. If you have insomnia or are sleeping too much, that is perfectly normal and will settle down. Do not expect your wonderful brain to cooperate with your preconceived notions about research productivity. Your brain is extremely busy at the moment.
Finally, you will notice that even this introductory guide includes a lot of very time-consuming work. Yes. Establishing safety and wellness under sustained disaster conditions is time consuming and distracting. If you are doing this right, you will have less time for your research. However, if you do this right, your research will also be much better. And your mind and body will thank you. With strong foundations, we can be productive, resilient, and of service to those in need. There is stability, hope, and even joy in this process.