“Lessons from Lockdown” is an op-ed series where contributors write about their personal experiences with self-isolation for COVID-19. We’re committed to publishing a variety of voices and perspectives in this series, and we generally leave contributors’ thoughts and ideas as-is even in places where we as a site might have a different take. For The Prepared’s official site tips and recommendations on all things prepping, informed by contributions from relevant subject matter experts, see our guides and gear reviews.
I have bugged out.
“Bug out” is a term from the prepper universe. I’m not really a prepper; well, maybe I am to some extent, but mostly I am an office worker with several advanced degrees who writes stuff for a living. I can write a really mean memo, seriously. I don’t live on a farm. I don’t have chickens. I don’t like weeding. I avoid working with sharp tools because virtually every time I use them I wind up in an emergency room. I hire other people to do carpentry and electrical repairs because I’d surely kill myself if I try to do it on my own.
When I eventually get a dog, it will be a miniature poodle. I like poodles.
I am also a libertarian. We libertarians have at least a passing familiarity with prepper concepts due to the overlap in areas of interest between the communities. Love of open spaces, distrust of the Fed, and personal independence are some of the more well-known areas of overlap.
But I digress. The verb “bug out” essentially means leaving your home for a safer place. Not “run to the store,” but rather “run for your life.”
A bug out bag is a core part of emergency preparedness. It’s a backpack filled with the most important stuff you’d need if you suddenly have to leave home: food, water, important documents, cash, etc.
I have one such bag. I first put it together in 2015. I never thought I’d need to use it. I just had it.
Just in case.
For awhile, this was a fun little hobby to have. My family thought I was crazy for building and keeping this little bag. My friends who knew about it made fun of me.
On Friday morning, I used it.
Getting out of Dodge
I was living in a city. I have a place in the country and can work remotely. I follow Jon, and Balaji, and others and have been paying very close attention to the coronavirus situation, and had been chatting with them and others about it for weeks. So I made a plan to retreat to the countryside back in January, just as things started to get ugly in Wuhan.
Covid-19 didn’t stop at China, though. South Korea was humbled by it. Then Japan. Then Italy, then Norway, then the Czech Republic, then Denmark. In the latter cases the countries ordered complete national shutdowns and sealed their borders.
Then a case was detected a block away from my apartment here in America. That night, I packed my bags and moved to another part of the city.
I spoke with a relative, who also lives in the city, about leaving. We agreed that as soon as we got approval from our respective employers to work from home, we would retreat to the countryside.
We were cleared on Thursday morning. We left on Friday at 6AM. We drove hundreds of miles, with only stops to refuel. Now we’re locked down for the long haul, until this is over.
Some lessons learned
I’m pleased to report that most of the equipment in my bag wasn’t needed this time around — I didn’t need to filter my own water or sleep in the woods, for example. In this situation, the two things I needed most, which are in very limited supply and can’t be bought, are: (1) information and (2) time.
Information is the more valuable of the two. Information allows you to plan. Gathering information about the evolving situation can help guide you to positions of maximum safety. Those who had the most information about the coronavirus at the earliest stages are currently, I would imagine, the most prepared. I know these people. They are already in their homes, in lockdown, under quarantine, before the government has ordered it. They know that going outside has deadly consequences, and reducing transmission means everyone has to do their part.
The second commodity, as I mentioned, is time.
Without information you don’t have any time. Prepping assumes that there are certain emergencies you can’t prepare for, like a rogue Soviet naval captain with a silent submarine parking itself off New York Harbor and loosing its missiles on the East Coast. If that happens, and you live in a city, you have been caught by surprise and you’re pretty much, literally, toast. We prep for emergencies we’ll encounter in day to day life, and these emergencies will give a degree of warning — as indeed we had with Covid-19, for those of us who were paying attention.
Most Americans have no information. They don’t really believe what information they’re getting, or they aren’t prepared to be social outcasts by doing things like wearing masks and gloves or working from home before the bureaucrats order them to do so. Accordingly they are, at this moment, wasting what precious little time they have.
Yet time is so precious. My timeline for Covid-19 looked a little like this:
- On Wednesday, most businesses, schools and universities were still open in America’s major cities.
- The day before yesterday, I was the only person I saw wearing a mask in the city. This despite there being declared Covid-19 cases in the city.
- The day before yesterday, work from home orders came down across the financial services industry and related businesses.
- Yesterday I left the city. Nobody was on the roads. I made my run to the countryside — several hundred miles — in record time.
- Yesterday I spoke with a friend who is a doctor. She tells me “everyone had” Coronavirus in her ward last night but she can’t confirm it because she can’t test. My state claims little more than a dozen cases today. Three more today at least. There are undoubtedly more.
- Yesterday I also spoke with a pharmacist as I picked up a spare inhaler. I was wearing a mask. She asked if I was sick. I told her I was not. I told her most companies in the cities had closed their offices and sent their workers home. She said she had no idea.
- Yesterday I also spoke with a local small grocer. My mother told me: “lay low and don’t talk about the epidemic,” as we had been chatting about it the whole way up from the city. She presumably would be embarrassed if I were the first to bring it up. My hometown is a small town. I walked inside. “We’re out of your favorite chicken!” The grocer said. When I asked why, the three guys behind the deli counter said, in unison, “the pandemic!” I turned to my mother. “So much for laying low,” I said.
- The day before yesterday, travel to and from Europe was banned. Yesterday a national emergency was declared.
- Today travel from the UK and Ireland was banned and domestic travel restrictions were mooted.
- At this rate, tomorrow may be the last day that many ordinary citizens have freedom of movement in the major metro areas of the United States.
Information and time. We were early, we were ready, and we still barely had enough warning to get out of a danger zone to safety.
Pandemics are exponential phenomena. When things get bad, they get bad very, very quickly. By the time we got home, the store shelves were bare.
Once you’ve made the decision that it’s time to leave, chances are pretty good that an emergency has already been declared and the situation is already getting bad – even if you can’t see it, the infection is incubating in tens of thousands of people who are going to fall very, very ill in 72 to 120 hours.
In such a situation, every 24 hours — if not every minute — counts.
The main problem with bugging out that I’ve seen people face is overcoming social pressure to not leave after they’ve made the decision to go. Leaving too early possibly jeopardizes a job. Leaving too late may mean not leaving at all.
If my language here seems a little wooden, it is because I am struggling to find words to describe what it’s like to watch the great empires and haughty nation-states of the modern world, one by one, get felled by an 8-kilobyte chunk of protein. I see my fellows in my town gripped at the same time by almost-panic and almost-disbelief, all at once, living life yet not, feeling somehow as if our daily lives were simply character development in the first ten minutes of a Hollywood disaster blockbuster. People are still out and about. We don’t think it’ll happen to us.
But it did. It is. And it will continue to.
The financial markets have made a seven standard deviation downward move in response to a seven standard deviation event. Coronavirus is unthinkable.
Hope and the unthinkable
Bugging out may turn out to have been a totally ridiculous thing for me to have done. It feels ridiculous. I hope it is ridiculous. Even as the United States seals off its borders and mulls banning domestic travel it feels ridiculous. I hope that I have absolutely no justification whatsoever for doing this.
I know that my hope is wrong. The novel coronavirus took down China for two months. It has already shut down Europe. It is in the process of shutting down the United States. America is wonderful. But Americans are human, too.
Rumor and reporting has it that POTUS may order a shutdown of the United States. All of it.
He should. It is an extreme measure. We might call that unthinkable too. But previously unthinkable challenges require a previously unthinkable response, not merely from our governments, but also from each and every one of us.