Near-term planning for secondary impacts of coronavirus lockdowns [assuming things don’t blow up]
In this document, I attempt to discuss the impact of the coronavirus lockdown and how to prepare for it. This is not focused on the direct impact of coronavirus, but rather on the secondary impact of precautions that people are taking, including the lockdowns and the new normal of staying home and working from home.
The document is written in an imperative tone, focused on what to do. However, please don’t read into this tone the idea that I am confident of these suggestions and authoritatively pushing them. They are just ideas!
Many of these ideas are self-justifying, but I have not tried to justify their relative importance to other ideas that I have omitted. Subject to time constraints, I’ll be happy to answer specific questions challenging the ideas, or comparing them to other ideas I didn’t list. If you have a question of that sort, there’s a good chance I’ll just agree that the idea I didn’t list was more important.
My initial draft of this post included some discussion of potential future timelines, but I decided to omit that in order to make the post focus on ideas for dealing with the situation. I may separately write about possible futures.
Expect a three-month timeline for the lockdown (i.e., lockdown continuing till the end of June), with the possibility of a six-month, twelve-month, or even eighteen-month lockdown. Even if a strict lockdown lasts much less, health advice may still recommend that you shelter in place for additional time.
Brace for impact! Prepare psychologically. Plan for three months of lockdown; it could be shorter, but it could also be much longer. If you overprepare a little bit because the lockdown lasts just one month, you’ll need to write off the effort, but that’ll be less painful than forming expectations that this will end in a few weeks and then constantly being disappointed at how much it’s dragging out.
It’s ideal if all your concrete actions are “no-regret”—so that if the lockdown lasts longer or shorter than you expect, the action still gives you some lasting benefit. But this may not always be possible.
Keep a buffer (material goods, liquid savings, other reserves), but don’t engage in panic actions to build buffers.
Impact on day-to-day life experience
Since we’re talking of a three-month timeline for a lockdown (and possibly much longer), you have to think of a sustainable way to manage your life. It’s not a day or two that you can somehow brute-force. You need a sustainable approach, and a reasonable balance. Here are some ideas:
Strike the right balance in terms of going out: It’s reasonably safe to go out if you stay far from people and don’t touch stuff. So, make sure to get a reasonable amount of exercise and fresh air. Don’t stay cooped up in your home for days. Obviously, exceptions apply for people who are sick or may have been exposed, or if there is legal enforcement of a stricter stay-at-home order. Most existing stay-at-home orders, even the strictest lockdowns, allow people (who are not old or at risk of already being exposed) to go out alone for exercise. In some regions, you may need to carry documentation stating that you are going out for exercise.
Get the right cadence in terms of purchasing food and necessities: Keep in mind that grocery stores and convenience stores are limiting the amount you can buy at a given time. So make sure to make regular (though not very frequent) trips to stay stocked up on necessities, thinking as far ahead as feasible. Sanitize well before and after such trips. If you can make these trips at a time when the stores and streets are less crowded, please do that. Again, please make sure to comply with any stay-at-home orders, including taking appropriate documentation in regions where documentation is necessary.
Take great care of your health even outside of coronavirus-related matters: It’ll be a terrible idea if you need to go to a doctor at this time. So, make sure to take good care of your health, particularly dental health and any other aspects of health that tend to be problematic for you. Make sure to eat healthy and take your normal supplements that have a good track record for you.
Use scarce goods sparingly. Here are some illustrative examples; the specifics may not make sense in light of your health concerns, beliefs about environmental impact, and aesthetics, but they give a general idea:
If you use paper goods at home (such as paper towels), consider using cloth-based substitutes, as long as each person can use their own personal cloth: Paper goods are likely to stay in shortage, so you want to use yours sparingly if feasible. For instance, use cloth towels instead of paper towels for wiping your hands, as long as multiple people aren’t sharing the same towel.
Give preference to handwashing with soap over using hand sanitizer. Handwashing is anyway more effective, and soap seems to be less in demand than hand sanitizer (likely because of the huge demand for hand sanitizer created by businesses offering hand sanitizers at workstations). The relative availability of hand sanitizer may, however, improve as lockdown continues and business use of hand sanitizers slows down.
You will need to figue out what other goods are scarce where you live and adjust consumption habits accordingly. Please weigh other considerations like health, the environment, personal aesthetics, etc.
Impact on social life and interaction
Staying at home, and refraining from participating in social activities, is something that could get harder and harder as the time period gets longer. Some social activities are easy to forgo for a week, but harder to forgo for three months. I expect that this could lead to people feeling depression, loneliness, and mental health issues, with the risks increasing the longer this continues.
A silver lining is that the reduced level of necessary activity, in particular commuting, may help people recover from months or even years of hectic commutes.
The balance of these factors will vary from person to person, but I expect that for most people, the social life impact will be a net negative.
What can we do? Here are a few thoughts:
Exploit the positives: You can’t do some social activities that you normally do, but perhaps the shelter-in-place and the saved commute time gives you more flexibility and time to do some other things you’ve always wanted to do but never had the bandwidth for. For instance, maybe you can spend evenings working on a long-deferred personal project, or learn a new skill, instead of being stuck in the commute or socially pressured to attend events you don’t really enjoy. Or maybe you could spend more time with your family (in the literal sense, not as a euphemism). Or spend more time online with people who don’t live near you anyway.
Get along better with the people you live with: You can’t escape your home to go hang out with others, so you probably need to make peace with whoever is next to you, whether that’s your family, your pets, or random roommates. Appreciate more the time you spend with them (with appropriate social distance!) or at any rate, don’t get into fights, considering that you can’t walk out of the house that easily.
Switch social activities online as much as possible, and plan a little bit for them: If you got a lot of your social energy from serendipitious in-person interaction, this will be in short supply. Instead, you may have to plan the equivalent online things a bit more. In many cases, more conscious planning and coordination may be needed. So make sure to plan and push for the online equivalents where feasible. This is important because it’s likely the lockdown will last long enough that completely forgoing some kinds of social interactions will be too costly. This may be particularly important for group activities that play an important role providing emotional support to their members.
Impact on work life and job security
This mostly applies to jobs where you were previously going into an office and you’re now working from home. It doesn’t apply to cases where you have been fired or furloughed, or where you were always working from home, or where you still need to go in for the job.
Make home station adjustments: Make adjustments to your home environment to make it more feasible to efficiently work from home. A lot of people find it helpful to have a physical separation of their work station and the rest of their home; if that’s feasible and desirable for you, consider doing it.
Negotiate a new work-life balance: The previous work-life balance you worked out probably needs to be adjusted in light of the new situation. For instance, perhaps you can start work earlier or end later, but need more breaks within the day to cook food or deal with your kid who’s also staying at home. Think through the right balance that works for you and your employer. This may take a few days to figure out.
Make sure lines of communication and recognition of your work have adjusted to the work-from-home reality: Even if you’re doing just as much work as you were doing in the past, your boss or colleagues may not realize that. Make sure that the “optics” angle is well-covered. The specifics will vary from job to job.
Keep in mind that getting a new job may be harder, so try to secure yourself in your existing job more: At least until the lockdown is in place, and possibly even for a few more months, switching jobs will be hard. So, try as much as possible to get along with your existing job. This is true even if your industry isn’t directly affected in a severe way; for people in industries that are heavily affected, the situation is much trickier. NOTE: If you are in a heavily affected industry and have an opportuunity to jump to a less affected one, consider taking it. But secure the new opportunity first before jumping ship.
Give more importance to building a liquid savings buffer: In my simple financial advice doc, I recommend building liquid savings for about one year. In the current climate, I recommend increasing the target to two years, and to three if your job or industry is particularly negatively affected. In particular, I suggest:
Stop contributing to retirement accounts until you have hit the increased liquid savings threshold. With that said, if you do have more liquid savings than the increased threshold, increasing contributions to retirement accounts may be a great idea.
Hold off on repaying very-low-interest loans such as student loans until you have hit the increased liquid savings threshold (though it’s best to do calculations for each loan to trade off the interest rate against the loss of liquidity).
If you are well below your liquid savings threshold, investigate how much of your money is in retirement accounts and other funds and make contingency plans to liquidate some of it to shore up your liquid savings. Liquidating retirement accounts may come with a penalty, which is why it’s better to store any new money you’re getting in more liquid forms. So make the plan (to liquidate) and be prepared to execute it if you find your net savings rate turning negative (due to unexpected income loss or expense increases).
Beyond the goal of maintaining liquidity to weather you through 2 to 3 years, don’t engage in panic buying or selling of assets: There are arguments in favor of buying and holding in the stock market given the lower prices. Evaluate them based on your normal criteria.
Continue your regular philanthropy and consumer spending: On a similar note, if you engage in regular philanthropy or in consumer spending that gives you happiness, continue with it as long as (a) it still makes sense in the context of the lockdown, and (b) you either already reached or are on the way to your liquid savings threshold. In other words, after securing your health and wealth, continue your life as close to normal as possible.
If, for building your savings, you have a choice between cutting down on consumer spending that gives you happiness, versus cutting down on putting money into retirement accounts, choose the latter. In other words, spend normally, and put less money into your retirement account. Saving for retirement can wait for a few years; if you don’t survive those few years, there is no point saving for retirement.
My reasons for writing this document
Especially in the rationality community, I’ve seen a lot of advice on protecting oneself against coronavirus, but not as much on dealing with the massive social experiment that’s being unleashed in the effort to do so. I expect the latter to increase in importance over time, both if containment efforts are successful, and if they aren’t.
Much discussion among the general public about the lockdown seems to be along the lines of “hey, we’re in uncharted territory, this is scary” and isn’t reiterating enough what this might mean over time periods longer than a week or two. I think what’s important is to start bracing for an extended period of lockdown, to minimize the wave of secondary effects as people get frustrated with the lockdown. Preparing people in this way could help make sustained containment and social distancing efforts more palatable, and mitigate some of the adverse social and economic effects. My post is probably a very small contribution, but I hope it pushes positively in the general direction.