By Alix Strauss
Judith Matloff, who teaches crisis reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, has found herself in some tight situations, like being trapped in a hotel during a civil war in Angola. The experience, she said, was dicier than, say, staying inside a New York apartment to avoid a dangerous virus, but there were some similarities, too.
I was thinking natural disasters were on the rise, but I thought of them as being climate-related. I didn’t think about sheltering for a pandemic.
What do you predict the next two weeks will be like?...
This isn’t like a tornado where you wait in the basement for it to blow over. Authorities are constantly revising and re-evaluating their responses. I think New York will do a version of what happened in California. I would be stunned if we were not allowed to walk dogs or play soccer in the park. The term “shelter” is making people alarmed. It really means not congregating in large groups. You shouldn’t be going to a party with 20 people or getting a haircut.
Have you ever had to live in a bunker?
I was holed up in a hotel in the early 1990s in Angola, south Africa, for a couple of weeks. There was a civil war. We didn’t have running water. We couldn’t go outside. My only link to the outside world was a satellite phone and it blew up after an electrical surge.
The other time I was stuck in a mountaintop in Colombia, researching a book. The only way in and out was via helicopter. I was sharing a small space with a bunch of soldiers. I was there for a few days with bad army food. The smell was disgusting and the space was claustrophobic.
What did you learn about yourself while holed up?
That I was more resilient and adaptive than I thought I was. Even the anxious New York human can adapt to an unusual situation.
How is a bunker different than staying put in a one-bedroom apartment?
We are not in a bunker situation. We have proper water and electricity. We’re living in well-equipped spaces. Sheltering means right now, you don’t have freedom of movement. You’re spending most of your time here. Your world has been constricted to a very small living space. You have a toilet; you’re not using a plastic bag with cat litter in it.
What are the five most important things, outside of food, that you need for survival in a New York apartment?
Medicine: a month’s worth of prescriptions and over-the-counter items like allergy, aspirin, cold and flu, Imodium, and an emergency first-aid kit with gauze, tape, ointment for burns, a tourniquet, and plastic gloves.
Each crisis has its own particulars — the electricity is unlikely to fail in this situation. That said, it’s always good to have spare batteries and flashlights in the house, but I wouldn’t start panicking and rushing out and getting them now if you don’t already have them. Five thousand dollars in cash, or look at your monthly budget and double that.
Also: Something to amuse and distract yourself: reading material, videos, board games. A way to exercise in the house: yoga, resistance bands, and weights. We need a way to work off the stress. Put together all your financial documents in one place, along with a contact list of everyone you might need to call in case of an emergency. There should also be a point of contact person who knows all of your passwords. Right now my husband and I are revisiting our wills, just in case.
What items are necessary to keep in your refrigerator and freezer?
Stock up on meat, fish, vegetarian casseroles and ice cream. Long-life cheese that can last a few months. Lots of root vegetables, carrots, Brussels sprouts, beets, and turnips — think Russia. Those last a long time. I don’t wish Spam upon anyone. Juice and milks with long shelf life.
Do you believe in maintaining a daily routine?
Absolutely. You want a sense of control over your life and a routine helps you with that. If you have a set schedule you have targets to move toward. For people who are not used to working at home, a lack of structure can be confusing.
Right now, what does your day consist of?
We wake up, shower, get dressed. I don’t sit around in sweats. I want the feeling I’m ready for work. We are organized about meals, which adds to the day’s structure. And we build in some time to exercise. It gets us out of the house. We go to the park or bike. I also do something fun. Last night I did a group Zoom call with friends. We all had a cocktail together. It’s cheaper than a bar. I make sure to connect with people at the end of the day and I try to go to bed at the same time. That’s very anchoring.
How important is it to keep up appearances?
It’s crucial to feel put together. If you look put together you feel more in control. If you wear jewelry or makeup, put that on each day. Dress in the same clothing you’d be wearing if you went out socially.
What’s the best way to get along with family members or roommates?
If you have enough room, create designated space for each person, the same as animals would. Eke out your own private territory. Communication is critical. It’s good for everyone to share the same routine so everyone is working on a similar clock.
What’s your best advice for those of us who live alone?
You have to maintain social contact. Develop a buddy system with people who you check in with daily and are your support system. Maybe have a friend stay with you. I have a single friend who I walk with everyday so she knows that she has guaranteed social contact at least once a day.
Do Zoom or FaceTime where you can see each other. Anything that’s visual is really important for connection. A text can be impersonal. Send around jokes or funny emails or videos. A way to break isolation is to do something altruistic for someone else, like an elderly person in your building. Check up on them, maybe see if they need anything. That social connection makes you feel less cut off.
What are the signs of cabin fever? What can you do about it?
Feeling panic, antsy, claustrophobic. That’s when you have to leave the house and take a walk around the block. Or take deep breaths through the nose and then let it out slowly. Call a friend; share how you’re feeling. Cut down on your news consumption.
What is some personal advice you can share?
Be careful not to binge TV because that can be an escape. If certain people are making you anxious, take a step back from them. Humor is important. Watch funny movies, it’s a nice way to round out the day.
Is there a positive side to this?
This might revolutionize the American workplace.
If you’ve always wanted to work off-site, when things go back to normal, you could ask your boss about continuing to do so.
This could teach you to be more adaptive and creative, and you might discover new interests as you try to fight the boredom. Reconnecting and turning to families, I think, is very positive. This is also teaching us to think about what really matters.