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Pandemic Productivity: The Strange Pressure to be Publicly Busy During Self-Isolation

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | March 27, 2020 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | March 27, 2020 |

Coronavirus Uber Eats Getty.jpg

When I made the decision to self-isolate as part of protective measures against the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus, I didn’t need to make that many drastic changes. As a full-time writer who works from home, I already spend most of my days inside my flat, often getting lost in my work for days at a time, so in many ways, I am somewhat more prepared for these circumstances than many others, particularly my own family. The few times a week I do leave the house — to exercise, to run errands, to visit friends — are no longer feasible due to shutdowns, cancellations, and everyone else in my day-to-day life following suit. We’re all doing what we can to flatten the curve and to ensure this pandemic does not linger around any further. One of my friends joked that at least she now had a whole lot more mandated free time to get things done, a feeling I know all too well.

We are currently living through unprecedented times and it’s clear that a whole bunch of us have no idea what to do about it, from regular citizens seeking guidance to perplexed politicians who seem to think that prioritizing people is a sign of weakness. Just look at the sheer number of people (read: utter f**king idiots) who have decided to continue with business-as-usual because clearly their being mildly inconvenienced is a greater problem than staving off infection. For those of us indoors, we’re finding out how we function without many of the services and freedoms we take for granted. What do you do when you can’t go out with friends or grab a bite to eat or take a walk to clear your head?

I’ve spent a lot of time doing embroidery, a hobby I picked up at the beginning of the year as part of my 2020 resolution to try some form of sewing. It’s proven to be therapeutic and just challenging enough, in no small part thanks to my general clumsiness meaning that I end up regularly stabbing my fingers with the needle. I like to share my creativity on social media, partly as a form of self-accountability — don’t quit now, not while you’re doing so well — and partly because it just feels like something one with a Twitter account should do. Now, however, as I self-isolate and spend the vast majority of my time alone, sharing these updates on my latest project feels like a necessity. Is it because I need that crucial form of human contact, however ephemeral it is? Perhaps. Mostly, however, I feel as if it’s become a way to prove that I’m not being lazy during this pandemic. Look at how productive I’m being, everyone! See how fun this quarantine lark can be?

I don’t think I’m alone in this. When you’re stuck inside for extended periods of time and it’s not something you’re used to, you scramble for ways to entertain yourself. Can you blame anyone for deciding that now is as a good a time as any to try out that new recipe or open up that jigsaw puzzle that’s been gathering dust since Christmas? And why not turn to Twitter to show off your successes? That’s what it’s there for. Frankly, there’s something encouraging about seeing the world continue to turn and its residents make the most of an unimaginably awful situation. It’s the version of Keep Calm and Carry On devoid of nationalist pomposity we’ve always craved.

So, why does all of this still leave me feeling pressured to do more?

A common phrase of encouragement I’ve seen throughout the internet since we entered lockdown is that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a period of quarantine so we can do anything now! Keep your chin up, everyone, and let’s make the most of it. Write that book you’ve always wanted to! Maybe you can find a way to use up these free hours that will be enriching for us all. If you don’t then what a waste of time, right?

Right now, a lot of people are out of work because of the coronavirus. Some are on drastically reduced pay as part of their self-isolation while others were unceremoniously dumped to the curb by employers who didn’t want to foot the bill. For self-employed people and those on zero-hours contracts, already precarious financial situations have become untenable. The pressures of the outside world have not dispelled simply because we can’t venture outside right now. Bills need to be paid and a hell of a lot of people need to figure out new ways to do so. The gig economy has exploded thanks to the sudden increase in demand for food and package delivery, further exacerbating this tension. Want to keep working? Get a job with no benefits that puts you even further at risk of the virus.

I do not think this is necessarily a plight unique to my generation but as a perpetually online millennial, I feel a ceaseless pressure to turn every aspect of my life into a commodifiable enterprise. It’s not enough to have hobbies: they have to be side-hustles or another demonstration of your hashtag-brand. There hasn’t been a point over the past three years of my life where I’ve not felt guilty for doing anything other than the thing that I make money from. Now, as I continue my indoors writing life during this moment of panic, that urge to prove how busy and interesting and creative I am, even as we live during a f**king pandemic, is roaring in my mind with a vengeance. Capitalism is cruel like that. Not even the rapid spread of a virus that has killed thousands of people and dramatically changed our way of life can turn off my need to be busy.

I’m fully aware that I’m in a privileged position right now. I’m still working, I have money in the bank for an emergency, and I don’t have anyone dependent on my ability to make a living right now. My stress over the pressure to show off my productivity lest anyone doubt my skills is some privileged people bullsh*t, I know, especially right now when so many people have way bigger problems on their plates. A lot of the creativity and public productivity on display right now is a mental and emotional necessity. We need community now more than ever, and sometimes, that creativity is just a way to get through an impossible situation, from the people proudly showing off their sewing skills to make face masks to chefs like Jack Monroe offering ways to prepare delicious meals with the scant canned goods we have on our shelves thanks to panic buying. These displays can be encouraging to the masses but they also expose the systemic failures at play: How did our hobbies become a way to plug the depressing number of gaps in government policy? Isn’t this all supposed to be their responsibility? Of course, driving the public into hours of unpaid labor to compensate for political failings before taking the credit as part of some display of ‘Blitz spirit’ sounds par for the course here.

It’s still unknown how long we’ll be expected to self-isolate during this pandemic. Some reports have speculated that we could be in this state for many more weeks and even months. Doing what we can to stay afloat will become ever more crucial since things will inevitably get worse before they get better, especially in countries where the government responses have been so shoddy. We can keep going and show the world what we’re made of but let’s also leave some room for rest. It’s okay if you don’t use this time to write the next King Lear. Do what you have to do.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

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