Humans are not wired for this
Self-quarantine sounds like a simple idea. Just stay home.
We’re trying to self-quarantine now and it’s hard. Not personally difficult, just culturally incomprehensible. There are countless little normal things that people want to do that completely break quarantine. Greet someone after a trip, make sure someone is safe, drop off food or clothes, get something from a shop. None of this can happen, and someone needs to be a Nazi about it or it just does.
Self-quarantine goes against every social instinct we have at humans. My family has been doing it for less than one day and it’s already getting messed up. At this point, I’ve locked the front door, kept the only key and that’s it.
Why should we self-quarantine? Well, my wife and son got back on essentially the last free flight from the UK. It honestly felt like a movie where everything is exploding behind the plane. Tomorrow everyone goes into quarantine and after that, it’s done. The UK has surrendered to coronavirus and is just weeks away from being worse than Italy, so — even though my family is all fine — we have to act like they’re not. Because honestly, we don’t know.
Why is this so hard?
In western countries, I think self-quarantine is hard for different reasons. Those houses are usually self-contained and the sacrifice is not going out for social activity. But we’re not like that. Our social activity is inside the house. Where I live our house is essentially just another room in a multi-family compound. We, the kids, grandparents — they’re all constantly in and out. On an entirely normal day, my children will see 20 people. This is our culture, and for quarantine to work it has to just completely stop.
Now again, this is not as hard as in a physical or mental challenge. We’re not being doctors yet we are creating (or not creating) the work doctors will ultimately have to do. We are important, but it’s hard to understand how important doing nothing is, even in a country that worships the Buddha.
While we’re totally prepared to stay home after a terrorist attack, we cannot limbically understand viruses. It somehow doesn’t translate to fear. And so every necessary action seems unnecessary. Seems annoying. It seems like an overreaction. Quarantine seems like an invisible line and who cares if you cross it. Nothing happens. But we face an invisible threat. Something does happen, it just happens 10–14 days later.
We’re expecting people to understand something the human brain is simply not wired to understand. For that reason, I honestly don’t think self-quarantine works. I don’t think this is a good public health policy because I do not think people can enforce this on themselves. I can barely do it and it’s my job to read and write all day. I’ve been consuming nothing but coronavirus content for months. If your bread and butter is something else, how are you expected to understand and — most difficult of all — communicate this to your family?
Many of the Sri Lankans who have been asked to self-quarantine are just completely messing it up. Read this account from a public health official:
According to him, Sri Lankans in ‘self-quarantine’ went to the hardware shop, hair salon, and to visit their old grandparents. Honestly, self-anything requires a cultural discipline we don’t have. We have many admirable traits, but we can’t even queue.
“Finally I like to add now for 2 months chinese had come to Sri Lanka since da virus spread and the transmission didn’t start in Sri Lanka until our own Sri Lankans living in Italy with attitude caused the Spread with all lies and deceit…”
Sri Lankans coming from Italy have traveled through regional airports to avoid checks, taken medicine to suppress active fevers and then lied to immigration here. These people have been condemned on social media, but put yourself in their position and tell me you wouldn’t compromise. I think you might. And if you didn’t, the rest of your family would scold you.
Nobody wants to go into government quarantine and nobody thinks they need it. At the same time, nobody really understands self-quarantine, and we’re wired to be social in countless, unconscious ways. And quarantine is not just a personal responsibility, your whole neighborhood and family has to participate (in not participating). You’re really only as secure as your dumbest uncle which, for most of us, is not secure at all.
For these reasons, they avoided self-quarantine in China, because most of the cases they were getting were family spread. Instead, they took temperatures everywhere and separated people from their families if they were sick. This is the correct thing to do, but you would essentially have riots here.
In Sri Lanka, we’re usually taken away from our families to be killed, and every phone call and contact is deployed to avoid this situation. I had an old friend who was about to get executed in a police latrine until his dad finally got the right phone call in (JVP era). That’s what usually happens when you disappear.
Ironically, the same military administration that subdued and incarcerated much of the north during the war may now have to do the same to their own families and friends across the island, and this does not compute, on either side. They know how to do it, just not to these people.
So we’re self with self-quarantine, administered by selfish people. Like you and me. It’s not even that we’re bad. We’re just social beings.
This is what the virus preys upon, our own instincts, our own goodness, our own love for friends and family. That’s the Achilles heel that allows coronavirus to attack us all. And I don’t know what to do about that, because it’s not really our heel, it’s our heart.
All I can say is, if you’re coming from abroad right now you must self-quarantine. If the authorities ask to quarantine you, just say thank you and go. If you’re feeling sick, report it to public health authorities on these hotlines.
Health Promotion Bureau– 071–0107107
Disaster Preparedness and Response Division of Health Ministry — 011–3071073
I won’t even say don’t be irresponsible or wicked, because I understand that’s not what drives it. It’s actually love for family, an entirely normal desire for personal comfort, and understandable fear of the authorities. And then of course ignorance, in some cases willful and proud.
So I really don’t know what to say. I won’t moralize to you because I know the conflict. What’s good for the whole seems wrong for the family, and we’re wired for family. So I’ll just ask.
Please stay home, so that the people that must be out are safe. Please contact the authorities if you’re feeling sick. Please cooperate because they’re not trying to kill us this time, just the opposite. Starting social distancing just one day early can lead to a 40% decrease in cases. So just stay home.
We are throwing our public health officials, doctors, nurses and cleaning staff into war and the best support we can give them is just staying home. Act like there’s a terrorist attack and curfew has been declared, and support the troops.
Never before has so little been asked from so many. Just stay home. Please, I know it’s hard, but stay the fuck home.