Getting a COVID-19 test in NSW, as of May 2020

NSW is encouraging all people with any symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested. Since I have what I assume are seasonal allergies, I meet the testing criteria and probably will continuously for months to come, so I’ve had a few tests. Curious? Here’s what you need to know.

Test access has got much easier. I’ve heard from several people that they don’t understand how to get tested, because a friend of theirs tried in March and their doctor flat-out declined to refer them without clear signs of pneumonia, so what is this stuff and nonsense about how everyone with symptoms should get testing?

If you want to learn about tests before you get one, try and find someone who got tested recently to share their experience. Here’s mine:

  • no referral is required
  • testing is readily available and swiftly administered
  • results are often available same-day

Check the date and location on anyone’s testing story before deciding testing sounds too hard and inaccessible.

You can get tested, in many places without a referral. Here’s the testing sites.

Here’s the testing procedure at the drive-through clinic I went to:

  1. drive up
  2. a person in full PPE approaches the car and takes your personal details: name, address, phone, email, symptoms, employment status (do you work in health or aged care, or no?), risk factors (recent travel, contact with known or suspected cases)
  3. you drive forward to a second person who reads the details back to you
  4. that person does the deeply unpleasant thing you’ve probably seen videos of where they put a swab up your nose and into your sinuses, wave it around, and withdraw it a couple of seconds after it becomes really really difficult to tolerate
  5. you drive away
  6. you are asked to behave as if you are positive until you get that result. This means strictly staying at home and minimising contact with household members.
  7. later that day you get a text message asking if you opt into result-by-text and if you do, usually some hours later you get your result.

I asked them what they do with children and they said, as of late May, for children they are doing throat swabs rather than nasal ones.

They only acted a little bit startled when I reported that I had had a runny nose for 12 weeks. (Some guidance on how regularly to get re-tested with symptoms that don’t change would be handy!)

I’ve not been positive (and hope not to be prior to vaccine or effective anti-virals!) so I do not know what additional things happen if you are positive, presumably contact tracing and fairly high levels of health monitoring kick off from there.

If you do want a doctor to examine you, look for a “Respiratory Clinic” on the same page that lists the testing clinics. The respiratory clinics are clinics where the doctors are already wearing full PPE and have good patient isolation set up (eg, no waiting room, you wait in your car). This saves you and your regular GP considerable fuss around them needing to don full PPE and change their waiting practices for you, and are a good place to head with cold/flu symptoms this year.

Questions to ask of employers transitioning to supporting permanent telecommuting

Some employers are beginning to announce transitions to remote-friendly or all-remote workforces even after office work is judged safe again. This has a lot of potential upsides in reducing commutes, in increasing job opportunities outside of established tech centres, in giving people access to their preferred working styles.

But there’s also a lot of potential downsides where employees personally pay to recreate the parts of the office experience they need and nevertheless find that their career tops out early or that they’re summoned or semi-summoned back to a tech centre just as they’ve started to realise the benefits of remote work.

Thus, just as I’ve written before about questions you should ask when hired into an existing remote position, you should ask a similar set for a company or position transitioning to remote work, to make sure that it is invested for the long term and is clear about any career or financial sacrifices you will be required to make to be remote.

Are there limits on where employees can be located? It’s quite common for remote employees to be required to be based in certain timezones, countries, or states/provinces where the employer already has some kind of established presence.

Is this transition in fact permanent, or is there a review date? Moving away from a city is a very large investment, often in direct costs but definitely in opportunity costs. Best to make such a decision on a strong commitment from an employer to a long time frame.

Will compensation be adjusted downwards for employers who relocate to an area with lower cost of living (or lower market salaries)? There are some remote-first or remote-friendly employers who pay the same salary no matter where employees are located, but also many which pay against local cost of living or local market conditions.

Will all remote compensation be adjusted downwards on the assumption that everyone will leave high cost of living areas? Hopefully not! Because some people have substantial investments in their current area of residence, eg commitments to their partner’s career or to their local family or friends, or to the cultural scene or their hobbies, or to retaining the option to leave their current employer for another that will require them to be office-based.

Will employees who move to an area with less generous minimum benefits have their benefits cut? Eg, will they lose days of vacation or carer’s leave? Will their insurance be revised in line with their new residence’s minumums?

Will there be formal limits on which positions are available remotely?

Even in the software, creative, and research positions that can be done remotely, it’s common for companies to not allow all positions to be remote. Here’s some possibilities for what this might look like:

  • you can’t become an executive if you’re remote
  • you can’t become a people manager at all if you’re remote
  • you can’t do security-sensitive or personnel-sensitive work if you’re remote
  • you can’t achieve a certain job level if you’re remote

Best to know!

If the company is indeed open to all positions being remote, how are they going to ensure equality of opportunity?

If there are going to still be offices, it may in theory be possible to become an executive or a high level staff member while remote… but it eventually emerges that no one is actually doing those jobs remotely, that those folks are all office-based.

What does the employers plan for developing remote staff careers look like and how will they audit its success?

Will there be training and resources for workers transitioning to remote, for managers who are remote or managing remote workers, etc?

There are specific skills required to manage and be part of both all-remote teams and mixed-remote-office teams. Will these be taught to employees? Will there be trained support for specific situations that may arise (eg, it may be more difficult to reach remote employees in a suspected emergency)?

Will there be financial support for the costs of remote working?

Remote working passes the office maintenance costs onto employees, eg substantial extra energy costs (particularly in areas with very cold winters or very hot summers), additional space, need for office furnishings, higher Internet bills and larger mobile plans, IT equipment, etc. Will the employer reimburse these costs and to what extent?

Ideally this support isn’t too specific. Eg, “we’ll pay for a co-working space”: co-working spaces usually have open office plans and quite a few involve hotdesking (especially if you’re part-time). They’re thus generally not suitable for people who have a lot of sensitive meetings (ie most managers or HR staff), some people who need physical accommodations, or people who are unable to work well in open plan offices.

Conversely, “we’ll pay to fit out your home office”: establishing a home office requires that people have or can afford to move to a place with an extra room, and usually that there are only one or at most two people in the home who need a home office.

Flexibility is better.

Will business travel be mandatory or strongly encouraged?

Quite a lot of remote teams rely on an mandatory or near-mandatory all-hands in-person get together once or twice a year for team building purposes. This may be an easy trade for some to get the benefits of remote work, but it may not be for others, especially for primary carers.

This question may be especially relevant for people who are going to be one of the few remotes on their team and may be expected to travel to the office regularly; and also for managers, who are occasionally expected to travel out to each of their remote reports periodically.

Will there be allowed to be children/dependants in the house during working hours and are there restrictions on their care arrangements? At least when schools and daycares are open, it’s common for employers to insist that if there are children/dependants living with a remote worker, they must have a carer who isn’t the worker. It’s possible (jurisdiction dependent) for them to insist that the house must not have dependants present in work hours at all.

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Questions to ask of employers transitioning to supporting permanent telecommuting by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

How I’m going to talk about what it was like

When I was six, I was in a boring classroom, bored, and really longed to fast forward time until I was an age when things got really interesting. My guess was about three years would do it. I just wanted to look back on that whole time and only go through it hazily.

When I was nine or ten, I remembered this really distinctly and looked back with what I assumed was adult fondness on my baby self. And I never wanted it again, except for any weeks containing surgical procedures, and also now.

The ideal beginning to this story would be indulged innocence, where the West swanned around catastrophically drunk on our own inevitable but unforeseen stunning defeat, but in Sydney January was, of course, the season of fire and smoke. Just after New Year, Andrew heard wailing from the living room and assumed that V was hassling A, but found instead that I’d just told them our holiday was cancelled. Too much risk of being trapped, being burned.

We explained the entire situation in the context of other people’s lives, that one day they lived in a house and the next day they lived in an evacuation shelter under a red and black sky. Later urgent bulletins came from the school about respiratory safety, sudden changes to children’s sport. Folks burned themselves out on Twitter sharing information, people were uncertain whether they could ethically bring new children into the world.

My children never heard the estimate that a billion animals burned to death last summer, I think. I ran into a friend at a climate change protest who was hurriedly fleeing home with a distraught child because one of the speakers had mentioned it.

We packed the Sydney CBD body to body for many streets more than the police or the organisers had bargained for.

We heard about the Wuhan lockdown, distantly. I thought of it, not as the press would talk about it in March and April, as if I was surrounded by a deluded magical shield that would prevent me from getting diseases originating in Asia, but in relationship to the Xinjiang internment camps. A lockdown was like the camps and was something as big and terrible as the death of a billion animals, and it would cut my mind open if I thought about it too carefully.

January was perhaps the last month that I remember the Xinjiang internment camps receiving any coverage or commentary in Australian media at all.

Someone at work travelled to China for Lunar New Year for one of their very first overseas adventures, and came home early when everything was suddenly closed down. It was two weeks before they were allowed to return to our office. Someone else spent New Year in Singapore with their family, and their parents worried about what was later called COVID, but they did not themselves worry.

February was something of a blank around COVID, like it apparently was for Donald Trump.

It rained on the east coast of Australia to the point of flooding, but it was a catastrophe of a few weeks, not the years of drought and the months of fire. Fires whose names we knew like we were later to talk about R0, Gospers Mountain and others, were extinguished by the rain.

There were changes at work and I was up in my feelings about them. I cried at some point because I was becoming a full-time birthday party planner for everyone who lives in my house who isn’t me. I was managing 18 direct reports, about twice as many as is sensible to do, and I carefully planned a series of weeks off in March and April to recover.

On the 16th February Andrew and I went out for his birthday, had dinner at Bennelong and saw The Necks perform, and on the 23rd we took V and three other boys to Treetops in Western Sydney for them to climb in trees and ride ziplines. I was so proud of A for being able to do all the younger children’s rope courses. The boys threw rubbish at us from the back of the van as we drove them home and we were pretty angry.

I had no sense that these were the last weeks of anything.

I have work emails in late February about there perhaps being a few cases in the US.

I started to get nervous, I’ve always had a niggling worry when travelling internationally that the entire setup is awfully contingent. They could just stop the planes someday and then I’d be in real strife. I imagined this might happen in, say, the event of war.

I expressed a preference for not doing any work travel for a while.

By April, everyone had settled on quarantines and border closures as the only possible response to pandemics, but in early March they were unimaginable, including I think by WHO, or at least they were felt to be extremely unwise and impossible to actually do. I knew people were fleeing the north of Italy and being turned back by the military. I was horrified.

Italy was overwhelmed and its doctors were trying to warn the rest of the world. Twitter responded with its usual prescription for catastrophes, fresh from the bushfires. “Don’t look away, you must not look away, you are required to know every detail of everyone else’s pain, if you don’t know about this you are deeply complicit in it.”

I read story after story after story of doctors panicking in Italy and people being dropped off at hospitals and next seen by their family on Skype calls, dying.

I cried for hours most nights in the first two weeks of March about both Italy and Iran.

I accomplished absolutely nothing at all I am aware of by refusing to look away.

Perhaps when I write this story for the last time I will have learned to delete Twitter from my phone and memory at any point whenever no one has better ideas than “bear witness or be damned”.

By mid-March, I was clear enough on what was coming. V had played his final cricket games and I half wondered if they’d be cancelled. The weekend after cricket finished, V had the first training for his new winter sport (AFL) and by then I knew for sure that it would also be the last training allowed. It was like walking around behind glass: the coach and team didn’t seem to know this, we also ran into former soccer teammates who were enjoying their rugby season and seemed to think it would continue.

We started building expectations, bad ones, in the kids. We maybe think your tryouts for representative cricket will be cancelled (they were), it’s very unlikely our rescheduled-from-the-bushfires coastal trip will happen (it didn’t), skiing is unlikely this year (still unknown, but I can’t imagine it).

You won’t see your grandparents for a long time.

They cried. We explained the situation in terms of other people’s lives, doctors and nurses working long hours behind masks, people we saw every day in cafes and at school who don’t have jobs any more. One grain of rice, two grains of rice, four grains of rice, eight…

We bought a few tins of food at the shops each day, as the media was starting to recommend. Believing we were heading for a near-complete retail shutdown, I bought all our Easter eggs, a new microwave, and a bike for V in the same weekend. I fought for a while with my hatred of working from home but accepted that I needed to get a desk again. I heard an older child at a supermarket say to his mother “you’d better not get all weird about coronavirus.”

I work from my bedroom now, if I roll over too far in bed I will hit my head on my office. I tell people I’ve accepted it will be six months or more but I haven’t.

I tell myself I’ve accepted it will be three years or more before carefree international travel is available, and that’s assuming it’s affordable. But I haven’t.

In late March, the modelling for Australia teetered between “barely survivable” and “tears will outnumber those in Lombardy”.

Tears in my beloved New York began to outnumber tears in Lombardy.

For a few days in Australia, events of 500+ people were cancelled, then gatherings handfuls of people, and then anything but one guest in your home and only for a specific set of reasons. My recovery holiday from overworking lasted one day, and then the state premier advised us to remove children from school, and then from the second day I had two jobs. I cancelled half my holiday in April.

I had a pretty good idea of the economic implications. I cried at big layoffs, I cried removing my children from after school care knowing that they were going to stop giving all those smiling staff members any more shifts.

I was wrong about retail in Australia, although there were many many voluntary shutdowns and also many from economic necessity. But Easter eggs were available right up to the day.

I taught my daughter to ride a bike. Both kids were devastated about the cancellation of their extracurriculars, but very stoic about the cancellation of school, and more compliant with home education than any other story I’ve heard from parents.

In late March and early April, we waited patiently. The case numbers dropped noticeably, at first, over a weekend. The daily briefings were stern: less testing on weekends, less doctors open, we don’t expect these numbers to stay down, community transmission is happening and will only get worse from here.

The Australian numbers stayed down, week after weekend after week, into mid-April. First days with less than a hundred new cases in NSW. First days with less than twenty. We can’t get enough people to take tests because no one has a cough any more, they said. You can get them for the asking, they said.

And we waited.

Conscientiousness in a pandemic: a howto guide

Rachel Miller writes for Vox:

my guess is that if you are experiencing the sort of emergency or unique circumstances where the only solution involves leaving your home or interacting with others, you wouldn’t be asking for permission.

The Answer to All of Your Social Distancing Loophole Questions Is No

Captain Awkward picks this up and adds:

Every time I say [not to call the police on neighbours if it’s avoidable] somewhere publicly, someone tells me about how they had to call 911 b/c of a fire or accident or some emergency, which goes back to the original point: If you needed to, then you needed to, it was an emergency, so why are you telling me about it, Edge-Case Bob?

Link: The Answer To All Your Social Distancing Loophole Questions is “No.”

Here’s the thing: Miller is wrong to guess that everyone knows what emergencies and unique circumstances trump public health right now. We know this, both because people are not seeking hospital care for life-threatening emergencies and because abusers are successfully telling their victims that one of them for sure has the virus, or that they will surely die if they go outside, etc.

I have a bunch of experience with being conscientious to a degree that is sometimes dysfunctional. (Hot tip by the way: never phrase something this way to your boss, because while you may think you’re helping them understand you better, they are thinking “wow, ‘conscientious to a degree that is sometimes dysfunctional’ is such a neat way of phrasing things in a performance review!”)

I’m fine making rules. I’m fine following rules.

What I’m not good at is breaking rules. I definitely do not personally come equipped with good intuitions about which emergencies or unique circumstances should cause me to break rules and if someone finally talks me into following their intuitions I have a huge struggle with it.

Chidi Anagonye is having a really hard time right now.

I have a specific and dramatic illustration of this. One day several years ago, in fact the 1st September 2012, I was starting to feel “fluey” while trying to fit my toddler son for shoes (he kept running away screaming and I was soooo tired). I asked my husband to walk home, I admired the new baby spring leaves on the trees in the park as I walked past them and said suddenly “you know, I think I’m about to get really sick, let’s get home now.”

Reader, I did indeed get really sick. I spent the next week in bed drinking apple juice and watching the shadows of leaves dance on my windows. I didn’t bathe because I was too tired and sore. I cried all the time because my all muscles hurt so much.

And there was this spot on my inner left thigh that was especially painful to the touch, like a really bad bruise. Weird.

We didn’t have a thermometer, but if we had, we probably would have found that my temperature was stable at around 40°C for much of that week.

I get ill fairly often, and had a kid in daycare so it was especially true at that time. The preceding year, I’d gone to the doctor to report that I’d been dry coughing until I vomited and that I couldn’t breathe for coughing.

It’s interesting that COVID survivors often call this out as a really abnormal and alarming thing, because my GP told me that day that “it’s just a widdle viwwwwwus, Mama!” and that it was really normal and I should wait it out. (Doctors often address mothers accompanied by young children as “Mum”, or “Mama”, and often baby talk to them.) After that, I inferred that, among my many existing rules about not bothering people, that “coughing until you’re choking” and any symptoms of similar severity are not a sufficient reason to bother doctors.

So, I wasn’t coughing, but I was similarly uncomfortable. Every day on the phone, my mother begged me to see a doctor. Every few hours, my husband begged me, increasingly in tears, to see a doctor. But I didn’t, because that was my rule: doctors don’t like viruses and don’t want to hear about them (Mama).

To be clear I’m not normally remotely that dysfunctional about rules. I assume being in terrible pain and running a fever that was much higher than we realised had pushed me to my absolutely most irrational degree of rule following. But these are the emergencies and unique situations that people will need to navigate.

Finally I reluctantly agreed to call a triage line, and they told me that high fevers and muscle aches are non-specific signs of severe illness, are not specific to viral infections, and also that having a really tender spot on my leg did not suggest influenza. They very strongly recommended I find out more specifically what severe illness it was that I had.

And so I went to the GP at around the point where the spot on my leg became so painful I couldn’t stand to walk far. I had an ultrasound that showed that it was a massively swollen lymph node, and also that my entire left leg was filled with other swollen lymph nodes. I went to another GP the following day to review the results, I asked if I could maybe lie down to talk to her, and she told me to immediately go to hospital. By that point my leg hurt so much I needed a wheelchair and I was so dehydrated that they ran an IV immediately.

I spent 6 days in hospital running a fever that was closer to 41°C while a couple of layers of skin peeled off my entire inner thigh due to the incredibly aggressive bacterial skin infection that it turned out I had. (It was never cultured, they assumed it was staph.) I refused to eat for almost all that time and for several days I also refused to drink at all and needed IV fluids and painkillers (along with antibiotics).

When my temperature finally went down, the infectious diseases specialist, who tended to address me at all times as a rather dim medical student, dropped by (on a Sunday, in his civvies) and said conversationally “it’s cases like this that really remind us that, even with antibiotics, these things can be very serious, and sometimes even fatal!”

So, it’s indeed safe to say that I’m in the group of people who need to do some work around identifying the emergencies and unique situations where we should take care of ourselves! It is not safe to rely on me recognising my needs and not asking for permission.

But I do have some tips for being slightly safer about this.

Are you a conscientious person? The first step is know this about yourself. Do you:

  • believe that rules usually have a good reason for existing?
  • feel safer knowing and following the rules?
  • tend to reduce ambiguity or make yourself or others feel secure by making rules or otherwise systematising things?
  • prefer to be led by rules?
  • prefer to lead other people with rules?
  • have at least one dramatic story in your personal history that goes something like “and that’s why I didn’t call a doctor for a week” or “and so I was the one who ended up pleading guilty” or “and then I paid back her debt for her” where you’re still sort of slightly proud that you followed the rules right into hell?

You might be a conscientious person! And it might not always be an entirely helpful way to be.

Understand that not everyone is like you. Quite a lot of people don’t like doing what they’re told, don’t believe that rules are generally a good idea or that rules are usually abusive, believe that they are a smart person who does the right thing naturally and that rules are only for those other losers, or use rules as means of having power over other people.

Many of those folks have their own excellent reasons for being that way; if you’ve been abused by rule-making a lot, you likely won’t end up in the “rules make me safer” camp, for example. (I think it’s also worth noting that conscientious types aren’t all good people either.)

Rules are often written to allow for all these responses. Rules are thus often very absolute and strict, because the framers assume that everyone will do 50% more than the rules allow (often recursively so). Rules are backed by the power of the state both because some people won’t respond to anything less, and because the state loves power. Etc.

And so if you’re highly conscientious, statements along the lines of “you wouldn’t be asking for permission [if this was actually bad]” may not apply to you. Those statements are aimed at another group of people. If you always need to ask for permission to take care of yourself, that won’t have suddenly changed since February.

Reflect on the purpose of rules. Pandemic rules are a tool for public health and safety. Know that there are other serious threats to health and safety and they may also happen to you.

If you’re a conscientious type, it could be a good time to engage with civil liberties organisations to make sure framing of the rules is proportionate to risk, and makes clear exemptions for, eg, escaping abuse, seeking treatment for other medical conditions, and getting fed. Help your community out against the abusive or unimaginative conscientious or power-hungry types!

Make a plan. Depending on your relationship with anxiety, extensive worst-case scenarios can be a bit risky to play with. But you can cover the major bases and use your affinity for rules to save yourself some decisions later on:

  • if you’re in an endemic COVID area, familiarise yourself with
    • the typical onset symptoms
    • the current testing criteria in your area, and where you would go for a test if eligible
    • the difference between “care at home” and “go to hospital” symptoms
  • have a plan for spending 14 days entirely inside your front door, eg an appropriate stock of food and painkillers, in Australia learn about Woolworths Priority Assistance and Basics Box etc
  • if you have a known health condition (including mental health!), have a guide to when you are sick enough that you need medical attention for it, and know where you would get such medical attention
  • find an authority you trust (in the best case some level of your government, but perhaps your personal doctor, a different country with a better government, etc) and follow their public health guidelines, not the strictest intersection of every guideline posited by every single epidemiologist, infectious disease physician, and random individual on Twitter
  • if you’re required to work outside the house, see previous point for specific precautions and also remember that physical distancing is a societal measure to slow disease spread that does not require the same thing of every individual person
  • consider #StayAtHome an excellent rule for most people for current circumstances (hopefully eventually in specific regions, very widespread at present!), not the new official way to be a good person forever

Be generous to others. You can’t save the entire world by calling the cops on folks’ parties. Captain Awkward’s post, for all that I’m using it as a jumping off point for “it’s not about you”, has some great tips for more sustainable interventions.

There’s plenty of stories about of people screaming “I see you out there every day! Stay at home! Murderer!” out their windows to people who are on their way to work, at a hospital, because they are a nurse, in a COVID ward. Make a rule to not be that person!

Do something good. Many conscientious people struggle with beliefs they are a bad person. Some of the policing is because people want to actively be good and the only way they can think of is to yell out their window at nurses.

Do some real good: donate some money, or become a civil liberties activist, or let nurses stay in your AirBnb for free, or start working on your plan to go to med school, or send a thank you postcard to hospitals, or join a mutual aid group, or phone a friend.

Work on your dysfunctions. Some of these patterns revolve around overfunctioning and anxiety disorders. Consider therapy or other management techniques.

Manage your own conscience. This is some of where Captain Awkward’s “why are you telling me about it, Edge-Case Bob?” comes from. Some Bobs: “haha, I trumped you in an argument, alleged Internet expert, gotcha!” Other Bobs: “please please, apparent authority figure, reassure me that I’m a good person even though I did a bad thing that was against the rules.”

You have to have better boundaries than this, and a more functional conscience. The rules can’t tell you if you’re a good person or did a good thing, and neither can advice columnists. (I guess I just outed myself as not a deontologist, huh?)

You need to figure it out case by case, and stand by it, and manage your own guilt. Much rule-following is about outsourcing your conscience and self-esteem and you need to stop doing that.

Things you’re allowed to be sad about, an incomplete list

  • getting seriously ill, or having someone close to you become seriously ill or die
  • not being able to see them while they’re ill or before they die
  • choosing between two of your patients’ lives because you only have one ventilator
  • being unable to hold or attend a funeral for a loved one
  • needing urgent medical attention at a time when it’s less available or when you risk catching COVID-19 while receiving it
  • being trapped in a house with your abuser
  • losing your job in the middle of an enormous economic crash
  • losing your home or your possessions likewise
  • shutting down your business you sunk all your savings and time and dreams into
  • having all your savings evaporate
  • living in another country from your loved ones in a time of closed borders
  • planning labour, delivery, and early parenting without the guarenteed access to pain relief, Caesearean sections, midwives, or home support you’d been relying on
  • not being able to care for close friends or relatives in need of help
  • cancelling or postponing your wedding
  • getting uncomfortably ill, particularly if you don’t have good access to sick leave and medical care
  • living alone and dealing with the prospect of not seeing anyone face to face for weeks and weeks
  • not being able to see close friends or relatives for an indefinite period
  • needing to look after your children while holding down a full time job
  • needing to lay other people off and knowing that they face long-term poverty
  • listening to a bunch of people you trusted opine about how “only” sick people (like you) or elderly people (like you) are at serious risk
  • watching news reports about people who were happy and prosperous weeks ago dying alone in hospital corridors
  • being cooped up in your teeny, dark, noisy house for months
  • not being able to fix up problems with your house because handypeople aren’t essential services
  • cancelling your holidays, and telling your kids you cancelled your holidays
  • explaining to your kids that the new normal is that most days there will be bad news about schools, jobs, friends, holidays and you don’t know when the news will stop getting worse
  • cancelling your birthday party or regular board games night
  • liking Milan, or Rome, or New York, and not being sure whether or when you’ll be able to visit them again or what you’ll find if you do
  • liking cruising, and not being sure it is a thing that will exist in the world after this year
  • not being able to hook up with strangers
  • not being able to go to the beach during some of the best weather you’ve seen lately
  • being subjected to people on social media wanting to take whips to “juveniles” seen outside their houses, or wondering why you even bothered to have children if you aren’t thrilled to be locked in a house with them for a few months at a time at short notice

Yes, not all these things are created equal, the list is loosely ordered and of course you don’t want to complain about taking time off from surfing to someone who just missed their mother’s funeral.

But, at the same time, they’re all sad. You have the right to acknowledge if only to yourself and hopefully to fellow less affected friends that it sucks that your holiday is canceled and that you liked your regular board game night a whole lot actually.

This is important for two reasons, one is simply for peace of mind, insofar as such a thing exists right now. A whole lot has changed in the world in the last four weeks. You’re struggling to keep up and you’re grieving. It benefits no one, especially you, for you to pretend to yourself you’re suddenly all cool with anything short of imminent death.

The other reason is that eventually we want it all back. We want to be mostly free of the looming threat of infectious disease, and for hospitals to be safe, and to be allowed to leave our houses whenever we damn well please, and to have jobs (even if we have children!), and to be able to retire, and to see our friends, and to have new sex partners, and for people on social media to stop hating children so much.

Being deprived of all this is a really serious imposition on civil liberties and while we’re certainly called upon to go along with it for the sake of our communities, and it’s useless to be angry or sad about it non-stop or to heap stress on politicians and public health officials in difficult times, it’s also not a good idea to convince ourselves that we like it this way.

We don’t like it this way, and we’re not supposed to. It’s really really really sad.

PSA: very few businesses can afford to keep paying their staff without revenue

Apologies for treading into a space where I’m just another tech worker writing a public service announcement in a field I’m not an expert in (economists, either ignore me or hit me with your best links), but for people imploring small and medium-sized businesses to continue paying their staff while closed for lockdowns (or while those staff are out caring for children): they almost certainly can’t afford to.

In stable-ish economic situations, you can regard employers as having a huge amount of economic power relative to workers, although it can collapse very quickly even then (Enron was a house of cards, but they went from being one of the most valuable companies in America to bankrupt in under a month).

But here’s the thing: most businesses, especially small ones, do not keep months of cash around. They keep weeks of cash, or in some cases (more than you’d think), days of cash around, and rely on a mixture of revenue and loans to make their outgoing payments. Even many very large businesses rely on short term loans to make payroll (this is actually one place where Enron got into trouble, when they couldn’t renew the lines of credit they used for things like payroll). Being able to afford to make payroll, even once, without revenue is very much the exception even for what you think of as a successful, enviable, business.

Similarly, with regards to “pay your cleaner!”, people will only keep paying their household staff to stay home until they themselves are laid off, and then they will need to stop doing that, because like businesses, most individuals, even very well paid ones, also do not keep months of cash on hand. And likewise at the point where layoffs reach wealthy individuals, they will stop being able to support their local cafes or artesans or small businesses and so on, in fact a lot of them will be in bad trouble immediately (because their mortgages are sized to their incomes).

I don’t have a good solution to this, we will need to trust in the economic and public health advisers to governments to draw the right lines between short term economic shocks to save lives from COVID-19, and major economic collapses. Definitely pay your cleaner and support charities if you can afford to. But businesses aren’t going to save us for more than a week or so: many businesses will need to initiate major layoffs or go into bankruptcy without either renewed revenues or a bailout in the next few weeks.

Edited to add: it’s also not very intuitive if your usual model of a business is that it is venture-backed, ie, it has access to a bunch of cash that it does not have to repay in the short term, but a large number of businesses use debt and lines of credit instead. In these cases, inability to meet interest payments may result in creditors immediately sending your business into bankruptcy or administration even if you did make payroll. Layoffs are almost certain to follow swiftly. Yes, creditors could be generous here, but they are themselves hurting and have upstream pressure from their own lenders, etc.

Working In Stressful Times

The world-wide flowering of work from home tips is great, but I think what we might all benefit from, now, is working-while-under-extreme-stress tips. These are highly person specific, but for what it’s worth:

Think to yourself “what’s the next thing?” and do that thing, rather than making huge todo lists.

Sometimes the next thing might be stepping away from work for an hour. Really.

Sometimes work is a great distraction. Really.

It’s OK to have meetings that are mostly for the sake of social contact! It’s common for workers to talk about meetings as if they’re at best a necessary evil. For some folks right now, they’re actively a good thing. Virtual coffees and all that, they’re not just for regular work from home isolation, they’re also for pandemic lockdown isolation.

It’s not your job to save the world and also you don’t have the right training. Politicians, public health authorities, and medical professionals have years of experience and/or study in an entirely different field that you don’t have (mostly, I bet there’s someone reading with an MPH or MD or parliamentary experience). Yes they’re confused, contradictory and making mistakes right now because no one is actually good at this. Nevertheless. Social distance and washing your hands and adhering to any lockdowns is basically your contribution, right now. It’s OK to do what you’re told and not feel the need to become a public health expert.

Consider why you’re consuming news. Unfortunately, there are plenty of good reasons for it (eg it’s where you find out what the current public health advice is, you’re tracking family or friends or neighbourhoods, you’re planning to cross an international border or even leave your city any time in the next month) but at least keep your goal in mind. “I need to know whether or not I’m allowed to fly” is different from “I need to know whether I can leave my house” and they’re both different from “I need to know the death toll today in [place I have few ties to].”

Under stress, you might revert to patterns of behaviour you have outgrown or even have done a lot of work to get rid of. You won’t know yourself or be able to predict your own behaviour as well as you usually can. Be kind to yourself if you find yourself doing things that are reactive or defensive.

A lot of people are under extreme stress right now. Likewise, be generous in how you interpret their behaviour. You don’t need to put up with abuse or nastiness, but for things like “you’re repeating yourself a lot” or “you’re planning for the worst case for this project” or “that was one too many tiny critiques in a code review” just keep in mind they’re likely having an extremely bad week too.

5×2: support your community, it’s hurting and scared and it needs your help

Right now the world is facing two new threats: the first is a global pandemic which is spreading rapidly and which might kill 3% or more of people infected, particularly if it hits suddenly enough that there aren’t enough ICU or hospital beds (as has happened in Italy) and many many people go on to die both of COVID-19 and of other things that a hospital would normally be able to treat.

The other is major recessions or depressions following on from the partial shutdown of global trade and the near total shutdown of enormous numbers of industries including airlines, large events, catering, tourism, and manufacturing, and knock-on effects for many industries. This will also lead to many deaths from the consequences of stress and poverty; I haven’t seen a guess at all-cause mortality changes from COVID-19, but it’s surely much higher than direct deaths from the illness. And those who survive will need major support to rebuild their lives and work.

I definitely understand that at a time like this, it makes sense to have savings and be prepared for the future yourself, and I’m planning to, but it’s also a time when all crisis services will be incredibly stressed trying to deal with increasingly sick, increasingly poor, and increasingly scared people, and there is no better time to make sure they have the cash they need, and help them get ready.

My family has decided this week to support 10 charities (over 5 days, 5×2) that we expect need extra funds to deal with what’s coming, and I’m going to share them throughout the week, less to encourage donations to these specific charities as to encourage you to think about where you can give.

My entire family is part of the decision to give, so not all of the charities will meet these critieria, but here’s some I suggest and will apply to my share of our choices:

  • small and nimble, works directly with vulnerable people: an organisation that can turn your cash into a motel room and food parcel or a week’s rent for a member of their community in need is one that needs your money today and can use it in the next month to make a real difference to a person
  • “nothing about us without us”: guided and run by the people it is designed to serve
  • donate cash, not goods: cash can be turned into what someone needs right now, not what a donor thought they might need six weeks ago
  • donate to the organisation’s general funds, not any COVID-19 (or other) specific campaigns of theirs: their other work hasn’t stopped, they need to pay their staff more than ever, etc, trust them to know what their community needs

If you can’t give, you can help by supporting and encouraging your government and large, wealthy employers to provide for:

  • ample sick and carer’s leave for people who might need many weeks off work as COVID-19 roars through their family and friends
  • ample carer’s leave for people whose care services (daycare, school, respite, etc) get shut down
  • crisis payments and systems for people at risk of not making (particularly) rent or mortgage payments or being able to buy food
  • strong engagement with representatives of vulnerable populations about their needs
  • a solid welfare system

Employees needing the most support during an abrupt telecommuting transition

With many employers suddenly transitioning their staff to work from home during the COVID-19 outbreaks, a lot of people are hoping that at least we might get a major transition to permanent support of telecommuting out of the whole thing, by demonstrating a large increase in productivity that it’s assumed follows from working from home.

But working from home is a major infrastructure problem at both a household and a societal level and this will turn out to be a pipe dream if we rely on employees to absorb the cost of long term work from home transitions.

Focusing on the household level, here’s the employee who is best suited to a short-notice work from home: they live in a quiet clean home, with a furnished private office. When they close the door, it stays closed. If they live with children, those children are cared for by another adult, who handles small and medium stresses by themselves. Their pets are quiet or cared for by someone else or both. They have access to a best-in-class business-grade broadband Internet connection. They can do their work with fairly standard office and computer equipment. If they have a disability, their home is already set up to accommodate it well. They enjoy their work well enough and are motivated by the work itself rather than by social connections with their colleagues or by close management. They have an established and sufficient set of social relationships outside the workplace.

And all this is on top of having a transportable profession such as software development, writing, some types of academic research, and some office support jobs.

That’s a lot of ducks to have lined up. Even leaving aside transportable professions, here’s some examples of employees who may be more at risk from work from home, especially from sudden transitions to it:

They share a home with someone who is abusing them, especially if that person is present in work hours. Abuse might include more violence or cruelty following from blaming the victim for stresses on the household, or simply from more access to them. It might also be financial abuse, such as interfering with the victim’s work in order to try and get them fired or get them to quit.

They can’t set up office-like conditions in their home because their home is too small, or they’re a tenant, or they don’t have enough rooms for an office, or they don’t have a private room at all, or they don’t have broadband cabling or their Internet service quality is variable or poor, or they don’t have the money for the required furnishings. Or they have all that but they live with someone who already works from home and claimed the available office space first.

Their home is physically unpleasant due to uncleanliness or bad maintenance (possibly in their control, but might be due to housemates, children, their landlord’s poor maintenance, etc), or nearby construction or traffic noise.

They have a lot of competing priorities at home that draw their attention: other adults are in the house during work hours and are bored or lonely, there’s errands to run, there’s a dog to walk, they get a lot of doorknocking, their family and friends are under the (common) impression that someone who works at home isn’t “really” working and is available for long lunches or drop by chats or can watch other people’s children all day on short notice, etc.

They require workplace accommodations that are difficult to access in their own home, eg an aide, or specialised equipment that needs professional installation, or they’ve been relying on the office for some accommodations such as hard to get foods or a fully accessible shower.

They have an office, but when they close the door, everyone else in the house knocks on it incessantly or issues ear-splitting screams or barks from the other side for hours.

They live with children and those children’s school or daycare is closed, and there’s no other adult in the house or that adult also has a job, so they have to full-time parent/homeschool them on top of having a job.

They live with children and there’s notionally another adult to care for them but that adult hands over everything except perfect behaviour and conditions to them. “The children don’t like the lunch I made! Can you make them one?” “The child has bruised their knee, they need your hugs!” “I don’t understand nappies!” “My video gaming commitments / meditation practice will consume the next three hours, can you watch the children?” (This is a highly gendered co-parenting pattern, your women employees co-parenting with men are more at risk.)

They don’t like their work and they struggle to do it without regular attention from managers or colleagues.

They do like their work OK, but they still rely on regular in-person human interaction, including in ways they may not realise themselves, in order to maintain a regular work cadence or prioritise their work or feel good about their work.

They don’t have sufficient adult social contact without a workplace because they have high social needs, or are a single parent, or live alone unwillingly, or are newly single, or recently relocated.

They’re conflict avoidant and they sometimes deal with conflict by deferring contact with the other person in the conflict. Work from home enables them to ignore chats, decline video meetings, etc in a way that would not be possible in an office. Small interpersonal problems become big ones quickly. (Spoiler: nearly everyone is sometimes conflict avoidant, and nearly everyone sometimes uses electronic communication to defer conflict.)

How do you adapt to these? Not easily, which is why a sudden and forced transition to work from home is in my opinion unlikely to lead to an emphatic demonstration of telecommuting’s superiority, but some provisions include:

  • acknowledge at least some of these concerns, and set aside some budget and manager discretion to expense better internet connections, office equipment furnishings, emergency childcare, ability to rent a small amount of personal private office space
  • initiate or strengthen your support around both mental health and around domestic violence situations and be sure they don’t need access to the office
  • seek advice on whether small gatherings of employees are safe (in the COVID-19 context) and if so, encourage optional cafe meetups and similar
  • actively review with employees who have workplace accommodations whether and how you can provide these in their homes
  • create additional leave plans (paid if possible) for people whose childcare and dependent care plans have fallen apart and cannot be reconstructed
  • consider how you will manage performance reviews and career planning for people who took a productivity hit

Thanks @hashoctothorpe and @leeflower for discussions leading up to this post and identifying some of the patterns listed here.

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Employees needing the most support during an abrupt telecommuting transition by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.