Video Chats and Ordering in: Coronavirus Quarantine With a Smartphone

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Yardley Wong, captive on the Japanese cruise ship grappling with the coronavirus, captured in a single image the essence of life under quarantine. From inside her tiny cabin, Ms. Wong took a picture of the closed doorway. She posted it to Twitter last week.

“So much wondering through this door,” she wrote.

From the Black Plague to the flu pandemic of 1918 to more recent outbreaks, the history of quarantine and medical isolation shows common emotional threads of those on both sides of such doors — uncertainty, terror, loneliness, separation. But this time, the raw physical barrier is showing cracks, thanks to the smartphone.

“After some emotional breakdown, I find my peace from you all,” Ms. Wong tweeted several days after her post brought messages of support from people around the world. “Thank you for the kindness. Your tweets give me strength.”

While newspapers, radio and television have softened the ordeal of past sequestrations, the coronavirus quarantines of 2020 are unlike any other in human history owing to almost universal digital connection.

Laptops, tablets and smartphones are allowing people in quarantine to work at their jobs remotely, order food, shop on Amazon, chat face-to-face with friends and loved ones, keep up with social media feeds, download movies and music — in short, to stay engaged in the world and fulfill many activities of their regular lives.

Karey Maniscalco, an American real estate agent who was quarantined with her husband, Roger, on the same cruise ship, found isolation surprisingly busy. “The last couple of days, we’ve been just catching up on work online, and doing a lot of Facebooking,” she said in an interview last week, before the U.S. government evacuated Americans from the ship and flew them back to the United States, where they will continue to be quarantined. “Our inboxes are constantly full. Keeping up on social media is surprisingly very time consuming.” She started posting TikTok videos to stave off what she said could be “overwhelming” emotion. “I woke up realizing that I’m still here and just started crying.” Engaging on social media, she said, “keeps me too busy to sit and dwell, I guess.”

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

In China, Isabel Dahm, 22, has been able to see her cats and dog back home in Minnesota through chats with her father, Bob Dahm, using an app, WeChat. She is in Zhejiang province, where she’s been teaching English since November and is now largely relegated to her apartment under semi-quarantine.

“I think if this was happening in the Middle Ages, I would’ve actually gone insane weeks ago,” Ms. Dahm said by email.

She is allowed out of her apartment only every other day, so she is teaching her class online from her computer in her small efficiency apartment. “I have a VPN, a virtual private network, so I’m able to access all of the things I could back in the States, like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube that are normally blocked in China,” she said. She also orders food delivery but the delivery people are not allowed upstairs.

“She’s learned the phrase in Chinese for ‘I’ll meet you at the gate,’” her father said.

More substantively, those under quarantine have had unprecedented access to information about the virus itself. For example, in Shenzhen, in the Guangdong province, which has the highest infection rate outside of Wuhan, Krista Lang Blackwood, a teacher from Kansas City, follows virus updates from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes, she and her family look out their fifth-floor window and wonder if the quiet streets are telling them infection is spreading. Then they check the phone to find out.

In earlier times, Ms. Lang Blackwood noted in an email, people probably would have fretted over how close the nearest case of illness was. “In the 21st century, don’t worry! There’s an app for that!” she wrote.

“You can literally look at your neighborhood and see where each reported case is on a map. We have no idea who runs that app, since it’s all in Chinese, but, on the app, there is no red exclamation point at the apartment complex down the street.”

“It’s an odd combination,” she added, “of glut of information combined with isolation.”

This widespread connectivity appears to be changing the nature of isolation according to experts in two disparate fields — those who study the sociology of technology use and those who study quarantine. In 1918, during the flu pandemic, parts of the United States embraced a strategy called “social distancing” that was explicitly intended to limit interpersonal exposure. Only one-third of households had phones and people were afraid to touch newspapers, fearing the spread of germs.

Research, going back decades, shows specific instances in which new media helped limit isolation. Journal articles from the early days of radio show how radio transmissions lifted the spirits of people in isolation at hospitals. An experiment in the late 1950s in Omaha found that a closed-circuit television signal helped the mood of patients at a mental hospital when they could see and respond to their relatives.

In 1832, when a cholera outbreak struck North America, newspapers carried news of the infection as it spread.

“There is a long history of new media in transforming these moments over time,” said Dr. Jeremy Green, director of the history of medicine department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The current media seems to combine all that which has come before — letter writing, video, radio and television, and all instantly and everywhere. Referring to the swine flu pandemic of 2009, he said, “Even with H1N1, we didn’t see this particular outcropping of social networking.”

Dr. Jeremy Nobel, an adjunct instructor at the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, warned that the widespread ability to communicate comes with the equally powerful ability to manipulate, distort and censor information. As a result, he said, people under quarantine may be left to ponder if governments are telling the truth, creating tension between the comfort of interpersonal communications and discomfort of official ones. “In an era of fake news,” he said, “people might ask: What is fact, and what is truth?”

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