Experts say one way to stay sane during the coronavirus quarantine is to follow a daily schedule, as if putting on pants when you work from home will ward off the crushing sense of doom that accompanies a pandemic. It is surely good to have a routine, but there are only so many activities you can pencil into your calendar when you are trapped inside your home. For me, the cabin fever is the worst during those stubbornly empty hours between when you finish work and go to bed—a stretch of time that used to seem so gloriously unstructured but now feels like a crucible of monotony. To ward off the COVID-19 ennui, I have turned to a technology that I previously scorned: video chat. And now I am a convert, exhorting anyone who will listen to whip out that videophone every night to build solidarity over our shared plight.
Let me be clear: Video chatting is, in many ways, awful. During normal times, is there any more alienating way to communicate? It is impossible to make eye contact because you are looking at the screen, not the camera. This misalignment gives the impression that you are ogling each other’s necks, or perhaps just losing interest, letting your eyes drift downward as you tune out. Some people look straight into the camera, but that makes it freakier because it’s so unnatural—their gaze seems to penetrate the screen as if they might crawl through it at any moment, The Ring–style. Invariably, the screen will freeze while I am making a grotesque facial expression, as if I did the mannequin challenge while using an invisible neti pot. Then there are the unbidden glimpses into people’s homes, their messy bedrooms and dirty kitchens, their interior design skills laid bare for your irrepressible judgment.
I know all this because, like everyone else, I use Zoom for work, which adds another icky layer to video chatting: It has all the trappings of labor disguised as fun. My Zoom conversations are often enjoyable because I like my colleagues, but there is a fundamental difference between work-talk and fun-talk, and Zoom blurs it. It feels oddly intimate to see my co-workers plopped down in their living rooms, dressed in comfy clothes, pets and children zipping by on the corner of the screen. My brain thinks I am just chilling with my buds, even when I’m enumerating the ways the Supreme Court will soon destroy everything we care about. I am all for casual workplaces, in meatspace or the virtual world. But my mental health requires a boundary between work and leisure, and I relegated Zoom to the work side of that line long ago.
Much like COVID-19 has turned Ben Shapiro into a socialist, the pandemic compelled me to reevaluate my bias against video chatting. During the first few days of being stuck at home, social distancing was marginally enjoyable—it made me feel like a hero by sitting on my ass. Soon, however, I felt like Matt Damon’s bored teenage daughter in Contagion, only I’m fairly certain my husband won’t throw me a fake prom when this is all over. Anthony Fauci never told me how lonesome and irritating it would be to hole up indoors, organizing drawers and scrubbing stovetops and trying (in vain) to go a full hour without thinking about the coronavirus. I know every other responsible person is doing the same thing. But I didn’t feel like I was part of some broader communal sacrifice. I just felt sad.
Then, a few days into quarantine, a good friend FaceTimed me out of the blue. My instinct was to mash that decline button, then plead with him to talk on the phone instead. But I had just talked to my mom on the phone for an hour, and I craved something new to look at after staring vacantly into space all that time. So I accepted. Suddenly, I felt a surge of joy, laced with righteous solidarity: My friend was going through exactly what I was. I peeped his bedroom, the athleisure strewn on the floor; I’ve been rocking coronavirus sweatpants too! I clocked the pile of books on his nightstand; I have also been reading 15 pages of five different books a night to distract myself from our living hell! I saw the malaise on his face, the gnawing anxiety in his eyes, and I could’ve sworn I was looking in a mirror.
No longer did I care about the two-second delay, the weird glitches and echoes, the surreality of the medium. I felt like we were members of some underground movement lifting each other’s spirits in the midst of a war. Or maybe just friends unwinding together after a long day’s work. The important thing is that I felt comforted and heartened, not cooped up and isolated. We commiserated about the pandemic. We exchanged hopes and fears. We gave virtual tours of our tiny apartments, pointing out signs of chaos (where am I supposed to store my LaCroix stockpile?!) and coping (are pizza-flavored Pringles socially acceptable yet?). And we traded tips to stop ourselves from losing our minds. After that revelation, my husband and I altered our routine: Every night after work, we make three video calls to friends and family. It has become the highlight of my day.
Typically, when humans participate in a mass movement to protect something important, we do it together: a rally downtown, a petition drive, a charity auction, whatever—we come face to face with the people who share our cause. COVID-19 is different. The most critical thing we can do to stop its spread is not come face to face, at least in person. And that’s a challenge, because we can’t feed off our mutual enthusiasm for a good cause. Nor can we easily express our energetic desire to help, because most of us can only help by doing nothing.
Video chatting resolves this paradox. I can witness, with my own eyes, my friends going through the same struggles that I am. We can feel simultaneously heroic and pathetic, and we can do it together, warding off the coronavirus jitters with a sense of pride and purpose. We may not be in the same apartment. But we are in the same boat.