March 19, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Holding on Until the End of the Coronavirus War

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I woke up early Monday morning to a slew of messages on my WeChat. They were from one of my high school best friends who moved back to Beijing. She had been sending out tons of COVID-19 related resources in a group chat with our American friends, and this time she posted a link to a real-time case map, urging our friends to stay updated.

“Maybe don’t keep sending them this stuff,” I responded to her in Chinese so only she could understand me. “Mentally, they’re probably where we were back in January, and reading these is only going to make them more anxious.”

For me and every Chinese abroad, this past week felt like the other shoe had finally dropped.

After the announcement last Tuesday, my roommate and I spent a few minutes deciding that we would stay in Ithaca, then quickly put together a group chat to announce our plans to our parents. After that, we headed out to Wegmans to stock up on groceries, expecting business closures or even lockdowns in the coming weeks. We’d already bought everything from hand sanitizers to disposable gloves two months ago, before the rest of America even realized the oncoming threat.

Our composure and foresight came at a price.

In January and February, we spent our days obsessively keeping track of the news, refreshing social media and making sure our family and friends were safe. We woke up every day to bad news, record-high numbers and cries for help that went unanswered. I was basically living in Beijing time, pulling all-nighters on my projects and thesis with the livestream of Wuhan’s hospital construction sites open on my laptop.

So as I watched the campus scramble and my friends succumb to the same kind of anxiety I’ve been living with, I realized I may be equipped to give out a few pieces of advice on how to cope. After all, this war just began for you, but we’ve been in it since the start.

Most importantly, limit the amount of time you spend reading the news.

Turn on the screen time feature in your phone, and turn off the breaking news notifications from the new sources you subscribe to. Better yet, shut off your phone for a few hours every day. I understand how hard that might be, because your instincts may be telling you that staying updated at all times is the best way to protect yourself. However, the truth is that knowing the number of new cases or the rise in death toll is not going to help you deal with the crisis. On the contrary, the biggest enemy to your mental health is going to be the overwhelming helplessness that results from constantly reading about devastating news and not being able to do anything about it.

So now that you’re not obsessively refreshing the news, what should you do with all this down time? If you’re lucky enough to not have financial or other pressing concerns, this is a great opportunity to do all the things you have been wanting to do but haven’t had the time: Make a dent in your reading list, watch movies or TV shows, bake or try out new cooking recipes, grow some plants on your windowsill. Draw or paint if you’re an artist, write poems and stories if you’re a writer, play instruments or sing if you’re a musician — and share your artistic talents with the world, because we sure need it right now. You could also always pick up new hobbies and start some side projects. Additionally, try to exercise without going to the gym.

Staying at home and practicing social distancing also doesn’t mean you won’t be able to socialize at all. There is nothing stopping you from calling your friends or video-chatting. You don’t necessarily have to have something to talk about, because just being in each other’s presence could be very comforting. Alternatively, you could stream a movie together or even have a drink together remotely. It requires more effort and creativity, of course, but you’ll soon find that our friendships are essential to getting us through this difficult time.

While you may be feeling powerless watching the crisis worsen worldwide, know that there is actually a lot we each can do to help the people around us. Some of us are privileged enough to stay at home comfortably, but there are many in the Cornell community and beyond that are in a difficult position, financially or otherwise. Support local businesses and look out for those in need. Order from local restaurants and coffee shops if you’re able to do so safely. Offer to pick up groceries or essential items for your elderly or immunocompromised neighbors. Donate to food banks and homeless shelters. Keep an eye out for signs of domestic violence in your community, because lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders will likely lead to a surge in domestic abuse cases.

When I was taking out the trash the other day, the trash room in my apartment building was in a disastrous state from everyone hastily moving out. I saw at the top of one overflowing bin entire packs of arts and crafts materials that haven’t even been opened, full of the promise of what could have been.

The gravity of the situation hit me in a way it hadn’t before. I was reminded of the doctor in Wuhan who died before he could attend his own wedding and meet his unborn child, of the girl chasing after the van carrying her mother’s body, of the man who slept on the street in the rain because he was afraid of infecting his family. Too many lives have been upended, and many more are going to be.

The world will never be the same. But it’s still our world, and each other is all we have. So until this war is over, take care of yourself and those around you, and hold on to hope.

Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at ayang@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.