A brief guide from Jennifer Mills
for @paythewriters and colleagues
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Italy really hard and sooner than many other countries. One result of this as an Australian living in Torino is that I am now watching Australian colleagues struggle with stress about what closures and lockdowns might do for their work. I wanted to write a quick overview of some of the things I have found that have helped so far in the very likely event that Australia also goes into lockdown. It might also be useful for those of you who are already self-isolating. These things might not be useful for everyone, this is just a collection of what has been working for me/stuff I have noticed.
YOU GOT THIS
As freelancers, we have expertise in working from home, being adaptable and making it work around kids, family, household chores etc. You are already good at this and can help others get better at it.
If you are going into self isolation or lockdown, or you think lockdown is not far away in your country, it’s very stressful. There is a lot of uncertainty. In the end, lockdown has been something of a relief — at last there is clarity and something we can do to help the medical teams who are out there working miracles.
The situation escalated very quickly here in Italy. We had very little time to prepare for the lockdown. Those of you who are not already in self-isolation might have a bit more time to prepare right now. This is the time to check your cupboards and make lists. It’s also the time to check on elderly and vulnerable neighbours (from a safe distance) and see if there is anything they need. Offering to do a shopping run for your building/block might help. Leave notes under doors to minimise contact.
Food and other essential supplies (supermarkets, pharmacies) will almost certainly be maintained throughout the lockdown, so there should be no need to panic buy. Don’t go to supermarkets unless you absolutely have to. Workers in these shops are at high risk of contracting the virus as they have to encounter hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Minimise the risk they face. Same goes for delivery drivers and riders!
When you do shop, get some treats and squirrel them away. Stock up on medication and make sure you have a first aid kit at home as access to medical help may be limited. Get ingredients to bake and make complicated meals, now’s the time to learn new tricks in the kitchen. Make too much every meal and freeze leftovers.
Art and craft supplies are a great thing to have for anyone — you will have to be inventive. If you’re a visual artist or musician who works at a separate studio, ferry supplies/ instruments to your home before the lockdown starts.
HEALTH — MENTAL
Anxiety and grief are real. This pandemic is real. There is a sombre mood here right now as the death toll continues to climb. It will take two weeks to see strong results from this lockdown and it feels like the whole country is holding its breath. There will be days that are really difficult.
If you already have ongoing mental health care needs, make sure you have medication and a plan with your doctor/psych to keep in touch over the phone. Make a list of other people you can call and stick it somewhere you can see it.
Invent ways to keep up morale. The famous flash mobs out the windows of Italian houses have been amazing gestures of solidarity. Think of creative ways you can signal to neighbours. This is a great challenge to share with kids. In Italy children have been making “Andrà tutto bene” (Everything will be okay) messages and sticking them in their windows.
Physical exercise will be a huge help with mental well-being, but also a challenge.
EXERCISE AND FITNESS
As freelancers we already know to move regularly, right? For me, switching between sitting and standing desks helps. I normally go for a long walk every day, so exercise in 70 square metres of lockdown is hard. (We can still go outside to walk dogs, but I don’t have a dog — and keeping any outside activity to a minimum is everyone’s responsibility.) Yoga videos have been good, and dancing and karaoke relieve pent-up stress. There have been many internet memes of indoor exercise routines coming out of China (and now Italy and Spain). Invent a circuit around your house, get your kids to make an obstacle course, lift and clean things. Vary the kinds of exercise you do, and don’t push yourself to the point of injury. Take care of your body and treat it gently.
THE INTERNET IS YOUR FRENEMY
In a crisis we all want to have the latest information, and when all your social interactions move online, it can be hard to switch off. Time away from screens is still important. Schedule some screen free time every day, especially if it’s making you anxious. Sit and look at the sky or the yard if you have one or gaze at a houseplant for a while.
During lockdown, work creeps into every hour of the day in new ways. It becomes more difficult to separate writing work from play/other kinds of work. We all have ways of navigating those challenges, and as freelancers our skills in this area can be quite useful to others. Talk with your household about how you might share the physical space. Work together on it as a project. Share your ideas online. Talking through our timetable for each day and observing knock-off times and the weekend have helped my partner and I to enjoy sharing the space.
Stress and anxiety puts pressure on relationships. New household arrangements can be difficult. Be patient, it will get easier over time.
If you have a home studio/office you will probably find it easier than most of us to cope, because you’ll be able to manage the work-life balance a bit better, but it will still shift. Sharing work space with others in your household has challenges. Try to think of this as a creative collaboration, rather than an obstacle. Let your creative practice change and adapt to the new circumstance, rather than trying to work as you normally do.
My partner and I have been making plans and going on indoor dates. We missed out on an opera we had tickets to, so we got dressed up and made popcorn and watched the streamed performance posted by the opera house. We make cooking plans together. It’s important to make moments to look forward to each week to break up the time, including special meals, movies etc.
If you are a precarious artist/writer/freelancer, and particularly if you are juggling your work with care work, childcare, and/or managing a household, you will likely see loss of income. We don’t get sick leave and most of us don’t have much of a safety net. Lots of people and organisations are figuring out ways to help. The Australia Council is looking at how to respond. MEAA is putting together a list of resources that can help. Unions are working to advocate for financial support and for rent and mortgage amnesties. It is good to be aware that a lot of utility companies have hardship policies so you can delay payment of bills. It is also worth mentioning that the financial stress will be mitigated by the fact that it becomes quite hard to spend any money when you can’t leave the house!
For freelancers, this stress about money can mean that we want to work harder. Some people think lockdown is going to be a paradise of reading and writing, but you will probably find that you have more work to do than before, especially when you factor in additional care work. This is a time where care work is becoming visible and challenging in new ways. Anxiety about the pandemic is draining. Be aware of the challenges and talk about the effects they are having. Cut yourself some slack about how much you can achieve in this time. Your physical work space will likely have to change; your headspace certainly will. Don’t take on too much and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Keep being social, especially if you’re already someone who struggles to stay connected. Meet friends via skype. Have meals and conversations with family. We’ve organised friday aperitivo with colleagues over google hangouts and cups of tea with friends over whatsapp. Italians traditionally go to their matriarchal home for Sunday lunch and it has been wonderful to see many continuing this over group chats. Staying engaged with other humans helps us all to maintain well-being and perspective. This is particularly important if you live alone. Keep an eye out for colleagues who live alone and try to get more human contact than you think you need.
I LOST MY GIG
Arts organisations in Italy (and all over the world) have had to cancel months of performances and events. The grief for lost work is real and palpable as everyone adjusts to the new reality. The generosity that has arisen here as a result has been inspiring. Many arts organisations have been sharing work online via #laculturanonsiferma. Social media has been a great tool to keep the arts working. It is wonderful to see how art sustains people at this time — it illuminates the value of our work to others.
ilostmygig.net.au is collecting info and resources on this for Australia.
Sharing something you made or are good at will help you as much as it helps others. Here in Italy, musicians have been playing balcony concerts to their neighbours. Actors have been reading books to us via their Facebook pages. Museums have been launching digital tours, and publishers have been giving away ebooks. Newspapers have even been publishing poetry!
There are lots of ways to get your work out there. Online meetups and festivals will no doubt proliferate. Check out https://www.socialdistancingfestival.com for ideas.
One of the best things for my own anxiety in lockdown has been coming up with creative ways to help others (including writing this). From sharing information and resources, social support, offering lessons in how to use online work and meeting spaces, sharing recipes/craft/exercise ideas, to your own writing/art/performances, you have a lot to offer that will help. (Remember not to sign up for more work than you can actually do).
We are all in this together. It’s a huge opportunity to build solidarity, as precarious workers and as the people who make and nurture culture. We are facing a huge public health challenge and we need all the art, all the good journalism, and all our creativity to get through it — your work right now is essential.
Love and solidarity
MUTUAL AID MODELS
Some more ideas for getting help and ways to help others:
https://commonslibrary.org/coronavirus-and-community-care/ (Australia, in English)
https://freedomnews.org.uk/covid-19-uk-mutual-aid-groups-a-list/ (UK, in English)
https://www.covid19italia.help/ (Italy, in Italian)
https://chinaresidencies.com/news/285 (China, in English)