Last week I saw a tweet about an app called “DialUp” that is offering quarantine chats.
You can sign up and be matched to speak by telephone with anybody in the entire world. I signed up last Tuesday morning and a few hours later my phone rang with an incoming ID that read, “QuarantineChat.”
An automated voice gave a prompt to talk about what you see outside your window. Then a few seconds later I heard a voice on the other line say, “Hello.”
We introduced ourselves and I found myself talking to a man who lives in Portland. We shared what life has been like staying at and working from home. Turns out both of us were in our second week of sheltering in place.
We realized we had a lot in common, backgrounds in journalism, we both grew up in the Chicago area and we both have asthma.
That was a main reason we both were taking the stay at home guidelines so seriously. Some regular days breathing is a struggle and I can’t imagine what my lungs would feel like if I got the coronavirus.
The idea that I could wind up on a respirator is terrifying, if one is even available. The decisions that doctors in Italy have had to make about who receives care or a respirator are very sobering.
How can they even decide? Will people who are married and have children who depend on them matter more than a 52-year-old single, divorced woman like myself?
I am not just single. I live alone and these past three weeks have had little face to face contact with people.
One of my first selfish thoughts after California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered us to stay at home last Thursday was, “Now I’ll never meet anybody.” Or worse, “I’ll die alone.”
Don’t feel sorry for me. I am grateful for everything I have. I still have a job that I can do from home. I have food. And I have my health.
I am only leaving the house to go shopping once a week. I have had almost no face to face contact with anybody except for a friend who dropped off cat food for my elderly neighbor. And we stayed more than six feet apart.
Still, I am struggling at times with this idea of being alone, or worse when the fear takes over, the prospect of dying alone. Most of my family is still in Chicago, my hometown.
A low moment for me was when the stay at home order was issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom March 19 and he said more than half of Californians could contract COVID-19. I suddenly felt trapped and had a panic attack.
I called my mother and sisters in Chicago. I almost hopped in the car to drive home but I feared traveling 1,750 miles wouldn’t be the best thing to do at this time. What if I caught the coronavirus on my trip and then gave it to my 83-year-old mom or my teenage nephews?
I know that it is not healthy to dwell on negative scenarios. So I am reaching out to friends and family through the phone and video chats.
I set up a weekly video chat for Sunday nights and invited my mom, five siblings, seven nieces and nephews. We had 12 people on our first two calls. I’m zooming with one of my closest friends who is working from home and has two young children. I’m reading the boys books and teaching them Spanish. My teenage nephew and I also made flour tortillas together this week connecting in the kitchen via Skype.
I also started reading books on Buddhism and doing yoga in my living room to keep my mind calm, and I dance salsa and zumba to keep my spirits lifted. I have donated online to several nonprofits and to fundraisers for local workers.
And I look forward to the quarantine chats. I’m receiving one to two quarantine chat calls a day. I’ve spoken with people in Toronto and Los Angeles, Pakistan, Morocco and a man from China.
The Chinese man living in New Jersey explained how strict there were with the quarantine in Wuhan and how people were not allowed to leave the city and that helped to flatten the curve.
I spoke to a young woman about careers and how she is navigating a toxic work environment. Like me, she can work from home, and we spoke about how this time away from the office will allow her to plan for her next career move.
I spoke to a young man who works at Costco and is a video gamer. I thanked him for working in a high-risk job. “I think you are a hero,” I said. He was surprised and told me none of his customers had thanked him.
I did end one call after six minutes with a man who started flirting with me. I realized that I wasn’t talking to random strangers because I wanted to date or find a boyfriend. If I wanted to do that, I’d be in Tinder.
I also spoke Sunday to a woman on the East Coast who had the coronavirus and was quarantined at home. She was struggling with the painful symptoms but she also had a positive outlook.
Over the weekend, I also found out one of my cousins in Chicago was hospitalized with the coronavirus. It’s all becoming very real but I can’t live in fear. All I can do is stay at home, and I’m going to start ordering groceries online.
I realized that what I was afraid of losing in this crisis was human connection. So I’m video chatting with family, friends and yes talking to random strangers on the phone. Knowing that there are people out there in the vast world still willing to connect gives me hope in these uncertain times.
Teresa Puente teaches journalism at California State University, Long Beach and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project.