A project from the European Institute illustrating the human experience of COVID-19 quarantine in Europe.
Imagine, if you can, a scene from your life before COVID-19 -- trips to the shop, commuting on public transportation, crowding around restaurant tables with family, friends, even strangers. While many things about the post-pandemic world remain uncertain, it is clear that the change we have all experienced in our work and personal lives over the last few months is unlike anything we have felt before.
As the coronavirus expanded beyond China’s borders, Europe became the global center of the pandemic, with severe lockdown restrictions implemented in Italy and France as early as March 9. In those early weeks, we at the European Institute began working remotely, holding our weekly meetings over video call and discussing contingency plans for our many now-cancelled events.
As we made changes to our own routines, we wanted to know the personal stories behind the quarantine headlines we were seeing across Europe. We launched our Quarantine Chronicles project to seek out these stories and give people a chance to document their thoughts and feelings about the various lockdown policies.
While our findings are not scientific as, for example, UCL’s COVID-19 Social Study, the stories we collected are profound. From the heartbreaking to the hopeful, we hope you enjoy reading, watching, and listening to the voices of the Quarantine Chronicles.
We asked our readers, colleagues, and friends to complete a survey documenting how their lives have changed since entering quarantine. Reading the answers now, it is clear that respondents may have learned as much themselves as we have about their experiences. We received over 30 responses from nine different countries, including the UK, Germany, Denmark, Czechia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, France, and the Netherlands.
Respondents ranged from age 20 - 87 and came from a range of disciplines. Many were students, whose studies have been disrupted as lectures shift to virtual spaces. One respondent is an anthropologist, and is taking advantage of the new situation to conduct research. A few have children, and wrote to us about the difficulties of balancing homeschooling with work. Despite the diversity in work and life situations, we observed four main themes of quarantine life across Europe.
Massive shift to work and family life
Without question, the most prominent theme in the responses was the significant change to work and family life once the quarantine began.
“As a journalist has observed in Internazionale (Italian weekly magazine), there is more to homeschooling than just pretending to be teachers. We also have to be 'headmasters and sports coach', organising the day around sports activities indoors in order to look after the family's mental and physical well-being. It is a difficult challenge.” -Vanessa, anthropologist (Italy)
"All this is depressing to say the least, and it has made concentrating on a lecture I'm supposed to giving more difficult to research, in addition the University Library being closed doesn't help." -Peter, University professor, retired (France)
“Like most academics I enjoy solitary work and have sufficient strong self-motivation to carry on, provided I can exchange thoughts with other social scientists across UCL and the world. And of course this happens a lot these days, never had so many Zoom and Skype meetings.” -University professor (UK)
Creative ways to spend time
Many of our respondents used quarantine as an opportunity to try new hobbies, stay active, and connect with friends from a distance.
"We’re planning to do a ‘village fête’ in the garden with a raffle, games, and a cake stall. Things like this help us to have fun as a family, forget about the chaos, and brighten our days." -Lily, masters student (UK)
“I bought a TV after 15 years without one” -Anonymous
“I have been watching the streaming from the Met [Opera] every day, which has been absolutely wonderful for me. … We have been dancing together too." -Barrister, retired (UK)
"Some of my friends and a Feminist Society I am part of have started reading poetry in Instagram Lives on an either daily or weekly basis." -Annika, student (Germany)
Dissatisfaction with government response
We also asked survey respondents to tell us how they felt about their governments’ response. While some had a positive view (“Good communications and acted early” in Denmark), most were disappointed with their officials’ handling of the pandemic. Specifically, many expressed that lockdown measures should have started earlier.
"I feel social isolation should (and could have for the UK) came quicker, not good when the government appears not to have followed their own advice and regulations." -Anonymous (UK)
"I think that the Greek government has responded well overall and this is evidenced by the relatively small amount of cases and fatalities." -Maria, lawyer (Greece)
"In France (as in most of Western Europe), they were slow on the up-take. Now, obviously, they are taking things much more seriously, but whether they get the tests and other material to the population in good time remains doubtful." -Peter, University professor, retired (France)
"Very good in Denmark. Good communications and acted early, and the results are coming through. As for the UK, pretty much the complete opposite. The government has acted with zero intelligence and I'm not even convinced their scientific advisors know what they're doing." -Sam (Denmark)
"The way things happened in mid-March meant that students and faculty and civil society organizations had to pressure for closures. There was no leadership. The priority of the economy is clear. I am very worried they will start things again before it is safe, and some of us will be sacrificed to this end. Doctors and nurses and key workers generally have already received horrible treatment by the government, with the expectation that they will keep things going without adequate protection. A terrible response for which there should be a reckoning." -Politics reader (UK)
"There is now a strong anti-EU feeling in Italy, fuelled by anger at the lack of solidarity. Same in Spain, Portugal, Greece. A lot of staunch pro-EU family members and friends are now saying Brexit was a great idea, and that Europe is a failure and we should leave the union. This may well be the end of Europe as we know it." -Vanessa, anthropologist (Italy)
Despair in uncertainty, hope in solidarity
Looking at the pandemic on a larger scale, we asked respondents to reflect on the things that worried them, as well as what gave them comfort. The answers were as varied as the individual experiences, but again there were themes.
People worried about: Mental health, job prospects, people dying, getting ill, non-compliance, people putting others at risk, how long this will last, global inequality
“We are all still in complete shock and worried that it will get much worse.” -Lily, masters student (UK)
“[I have been] unable to visit my wife in long-term hospital care with Huntington's Disease. (My wife in fact died last week (Pneumonia + Huntington's Disease). Because of the coronavirus restrictions, obtaining a Death Certificate, registration of the death and arranging a funeral have been extra-complicated and time-consuming.” -Ole, Solicitor, retired/legal consultant (UK)
“I often struggle to give myself space for my own concerns while keeping in mind how lucky I am.” -Eva, student (Netherlands)
People were comforted by: Countries and individuals coming together
“Everybody is in the same boat and that we are all experiencing the same thing.” -Cheryl, student (UK)
“I do like the 'ClapforNHS' events in the UK, which display people's kindness to the lovable fighters and the country's firmness to conquer the coronavirus.” -Yinuo, student (Chinese, in UK)
“Countries are willing and able to send aid to each other, that we may learn from this experience and take away positive after-effects.” -Maria, masters student (UK)
At the time of publishing, several European countries have lifted at least some lockdown restrictions. In the UK, we can visit with a few friends and family members, and many non-essential businesses have reopened. The EI and many of our Quarantine Chronicles respondents will be working from home for the foreseeable future, and are currently wondering what new habits and rituals from the lockdown will remain part of our daily lives in a “post-COVID” world, if there is such a thing. For now, let us take comfort in the power of sharing our stories, a practice that is just as relevant now as it has been throughout history.