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.

Gen­eral ideas

  • 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.

Fi­nan­cial impact

  • 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.