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Leadership & Organisations

Coping With Life in Lockdown

Coping With Life in Lockdown

What if we used the COVID-19 crisis to reconnect with others and ourselves?

In our highly interconnected world, is it really possible to run away from a pandemic? This is the first question I pondered after seeking refuge in my house in the remote countryside of southern France. As I looked at the olive trees, two stories that I had read many years ago came to mind.

The first is a retelling of an ancient Mesopotamian tale called “Appointment in Samarra”. According to this story, a merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Soon afterwards, the servant ran in, white as a sheet. He said: “Master, just now in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd. When I looked closer, I realised that it was Death who made a threatening gesture towards me.”

Trembling with fear, the servant asked the merchant to let him borrow his fastest horse so he could flee to Samarra, a town more than one hundred kilometres away, where he believed Death wouldn’t be able to find him.

Sometime later, a bit annoyed but also curious, the merchant walked to the marketplace and found Death. He asked her why she had made such a threatening gesture. She replied, “It was only a sign of great surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

The second story, written by Edgar Allan Poe, is “The Masque of the Red Death”. It follows Prince Prospero's attempt to run from a plague known as the Red Death; retiring with the nobles of his court to one of his fortified abbeys. Locking the gates behind them, he organised a masquerade ball. But, in the midst of the revelry, a new guest made his appearance at midnight. As Prospero went to confront him and the ghoulish figure showed his face, the prince let out a scream and died. One by one, the other revellers met the same fate. The mysterious stranger was, of course, the Red Death.

The moral of both tales is that no mortal, whether a servant or a prince, can escape death. These two stories found their mark when the stonemason working in my garden informed me that his colleague has been diagnosed with the coronavirus. So much for my own attempt at running away.

The psychological impact of social distancing

Although we cannot escape death, we can make an effort to delay it. That is why the governments of so many countries are restricting people’s movement. They want everyone to isolate themselves and to engage in social distancing. These measures are reasonable steps to diminish the contagion and lessen the pressures on health systems that are already overburdened. But from a psychological perspective, how do these measures affect people?

In terms of work, this “house arrest” isn’t necessarily a problem and may actually be a welcome development. For instance, office workers can by and large continue as before, with the main difference that they save themselves the trouble and cost of commuting. For others, the situation is far more of an issue.

We should keep in mind that Homo sapiens is first and foremost a social animal. A large body of research has shown that socially active people tend to have higher levels of physical and psychological wellbeing. As humans, we have a strong need for inclusion within a social collective. With all social gatherings prohibited, loneliness is sure to raise its ugly head. For some people, this sense of isolation will be extremely stressful.

What aggravates the situation is the fact that, in times of crisis, human beings like to come together to share experiences, show solidarity and help each other. Without any doubt, this time of crisis has arrived, as the coronavirus pandemic threatens people’s lives and livelihoods. It is exactly during such crises that we need social support the most. Togetherness can protect us against the negative impact that these events can have on our mental health.

Therefore, what’s asked from us – although absolutely necessary in the greater scheme of things – is exactly the opposite of what we human beings normally do. Not being able to seek the comfort of others just adds to the level of stress and anxiety already caused by the crisis.

The stress and anxiety is also creating in some people a fair amount of paranoia, a very rational reaction to feeling threatened by this “invisible enemy” around us. Unfortunately, paranoia compounds the distancing effect, adding fuel to the fire.

Staying connected with others but also ourselves

Hopefully, many of us have close family members who can serve as a buffer to minimise potential stress reactions. They may help us cope, even though in some situations, the extended amount of time spent in close quarters can raise tension. Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic provides an ideal opportunity to reconnect and strengthen relationships within the family.

Now many of us are trying to stay connected through calls, texts, emails and other virtual means. These alternative ways of remaining in contact can contribute to a sense of togetherness. They may be especially important to people who live alone. With fewer resources to draw upon, individuals may experience serious stress reactions.

On the positive side, social isolation might be a never-seen-before opportunity to practice greater self-reflection. As we have been conditioned all our lives to run from one appointment to another, it has become far too easy to run away from ourselves. For example, embarking on an inner journey – hopefully, whenever possible, with a virtual guide – can be a great learning experience. It implies discovering what we stand for and finding out our strengths, our weaknesses, our values, our beliefs, our desires or, generally speaking, the major scripts in our inner theatre. While on this inner journey, we can try to work out what makes us laugh and to do more of it. We should work out what makes us cry and do less of it.

For one example of interpersonal reflectivity, listen to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking about a daughter who had been in quarantine for two weeks:

“To tell you the truth, I had some of the best conversations with her that I’ve ever had… We talked about things in depth that we didn’t have time to talk about in the past…or we didn’t have the courage or the strength to talk about in the past – feelings I had, about mistakes I had made along the way that I wanted to express my regret and talk through with her.”

As the caterpillar needs to transform within its cocoon before it emerges as a butterfly, likewise, such a journey of reflectivity may have a great transformative impact. And most probably, we need this capacity for change, as the world will not be the same as before, after the passing of the coronavirus. As the well-known psychiatrist Victor Frankl once said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

About the author(s)

About the series

INSEAD thought leaders and their collaborators in the practitioner and entrepreneurship communities offer informed perspectives on how to weather the Covid-19 crisis and emerge from it stronger than ever.
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Anonymous User

28/05/2020, 02.46 am

I once read that the change is gradual, like "the parabola of the boiling frog". Not only was it, it also had a start date. But we couldn't see it because we were doing everyday things. Any one of us affects our planet, whether it's an animal market in Wuhan, New Delhi or Mexico City. What we couldn't see was when and where because it was everyday, "do the usual". Not anymore. Nature has its regeneration cycles and men are biological beings that we are in the process. Anything can happen to us. It could happen that by trying to protect us more and return to the previous state, then more damage we do to the planet.


Anonymous User

07/04/2020, 07.33 pm

I believe that the article somewhat neglects the needs of introvert people. For these, the so called "social isolation" can be a breath of fresh air and a welcome change of scenery, after having been confined to open-plan offices, bully-personality colleagues, air-conditioning noise etc.


Anonymous User

02/04/2020, 06.47 pm

Great piece, Manfred. I have resisted the term "social distancing" as I feel like it doesn't capture the right spirit. I suggest we split the term into social & distancing: social connection and physical distancing. In these times, we need to connect not just to each other (and the VIPs as suggested by Svetlana) but with what's important. What matters? Assuming you're not one of those directly affected by the illness, it's a great time to reflect. I want to say that we may now move from SELFIE-TIME to a TIME TO SELF...REFLECT. @mdial


Svetlana Pavlenko

02/04/2020, 03.45 am

I totally agree that the quarantine gave an ability to many leaders to stop, breath and rethink.
Suddenly, we have time to look around and notice our family members - the most important people in our life who, perhaps, sacrificed a lot in order to support our ambitions of professional development and results.
I do appreciate this time. I also think about professional issues that I didn't think before due to lack of time and "illusion of unimportance" of them for the current stage of my organization.
Good time to recharge!

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