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20200601 FoGO - The Fear of Going Out.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

It's a thing. And you are not alone.

Several years ago, I was walking down a main road near my flat. It was a walk I made perhaps three or four times each week. At the other end of it were most of my favourite restaurants and bars (not the seedy "bar street" the end of which I would pass) banks and shopping. It was a bright and sunny day and I was having a lovely stroll. The local authority had taken action to prevent motorcyclists grabbing bags from pedestrians by installing both hedges and fences.

That didn't stop a two-bike team (one to snatch, one to ride interference in the event of a chase) from grabbing my handbag (yes, I'm a man and I have long carried a handbag. Get over it) from my right hand. D*m* I thought later, if only I'd carried the bag with my lunch in that hand. They had waited until I crossed a side road, unprotected by the hedge and fence and swooped. I, of course, had paid no attention to the motorcycle engine behind me - I was in the middle of the road: why wouldn't there be a motorcycle behind me?

I was entirely unhurt. I didn't even get a bent finger as the bag, not much bigger than my hand and, obviously irresponsibly, was dangling from my fingers.

But, as the next few days wore on, I became more and more nervous about going out. The reason was simple: this very, very, very minor event, both physically and financially (although sorting out the documentary aftermath was a pain in the bum), had happened in a place where I had until then been completely and utterly safe. It was familiar. If that three times each week estimate is right (it's probably low, now I come to think about it) and I'd been doing it for more than a decade, then I'd walked up and down that road some 1,150 times, morning, noon, evening and very late night and never felt even a hint of a threat of anything more than tripping over a raised paving slab, etc.

And yet, I found my self reluctant to go out on foot. It was utterly irrational. My sensible brain told my emotional bits to bloody well grow up.

The emotional bits didn't listen. I found myself taking different routes to the same places, or not going unless I needed to.

And yet, everywhere else I went, I was fine. Absolutely no concerns at all. And believe me, I've been to some very dodgy places around the world - and even now will happily wander into districts that people tell me aren't safe, much to the surprise of whichever organisation is hosting me to tell them about risk.

So, why this story?

It's because yesterday, for the first time since 22 March, I left my flat to go out for no reason except to go out. In that time, I've been to a supermarket twice (the second time I was there was the day that, counting back from the announcement, that the security guards in that shopping centre started a period of infection and they, with supreme irony, had taken my temperature to assess me), to my corner shop perhaps a dozen times and to collect something from an office. I once tried to go to a different supermarket but they wanted me to queue, in the sun, for half an hour before they checked my temperature and decided if I could enter. I got back in the car.

I had taken a brief walk two Sundays ago, when the lockdown was first eased to allow exercise. I didn't like it. There were too many people who seemed to be out without a purpose, hanging around closed retail and food outlets. This was only days after several areas had been cordoned off because of high rates of CoVid-19 amongst migrant labourers. Unlike in some countries, Malaysia has not demonised this group - indeed, it has provided purely statistical information and has not - for want of a better word - blamed them. In fact, mostly the blame has fallen on employers for not making proper provision for the workers.

The statistics are stark, though. In the city centre, this is the group where far more than half of the cases are to be found. It is therefore discomforting to walk out to find that almost all the people in the streets are from that obviously high risk group.

I went home and hid for another two weeks.

Which brings us to yesterday when I took another trip out. Once more, there was a preponderance of the same people - but what was equally noticeable was that, as retail outlets were opened, there were far more people gathering in the streets. There's a road called Bukit Bintang. One end is like the shabby end of London's Oxford Street but worse. Then at a crossroads it changes, almost like another world for the comfortably off.

All up and down the shabby stretch there were groups of men standing chatting, touching as they talked, almost blocking the pavement so that it was impossible to stay more than a metre away from them. These are pure social gatherings of the type that are supposed to not be happening.

I did the shopping that I'd told myself was an excuse to go out and took an alternative route home, meeting a friend whose restaurant business was already under great pressure in January as the Chinese tourist trade dried up and other people started to be wary about being out. Their usually crowded premises have a few tables and only a couple of diners at some of them. I've eaten there for 20 years, since before I moved to Malaysia. It's always been jam-packed.

The reality is that the fear of going out because of the risk of becoming infected with CoVid-19 began, for many, long before any form of lockdown began. I was satisfied that the risks, at that time, were contained by avoiding Chinese tourists and they were becoming as rare as hen's teeth.

But slowly, worldwide, the cases started to spiral and in Malaysia there were some specific events that increased the number of cases in a way that looked huge - but in fact it that was all a matter of statistics. Today the UK's Daily Express has a headline that there were "only 126 deaths yesterday." Malaysia's total is 115. Since the crisis began, not in one day that the media clearly thinks is a good day. There was, and is, no rational reason for me being afraid of going out so long as I am cautious as to how close I come to other people and so long as I keep my hands and face clean.

I thought, maybe I'm going mad. So I looked it up. Apparently, it's a thing. It's even got buzzword names for it (so far none has reached global acceptance so I'm pitching FoGO because it's as good as anything else and it's not pretentious).

There are all the usual hints and tips from instant experts, next to "Five best bindings to lockdown your lovelife*" and "Ten best yoga poses in one square metre*" Pop-psychology is already rife across glossy magazines and vacuous media websites.

But we should not treat it lightly. We should be aware that it really is a thing. One article that, from the headline, I thought was going to be clickbait might have been. I don't know. I didn't read it. But the headline was interesting - it talked of post-lockdown PTSD.

We usually hear of that for soldiers, for emergency medical staff, police officers and the like. Surely it's rubbish to say that people who have sat at home doing whatever they felt like within the confines of being in the same premises are suffering from PTSD?

Maybe not.

"King knew that solitary confinement was changing the way his brain worked. When he finally left his cell, he realized he had trouble recognizing faces and had to retrain his eyes to learn what a face was like. His sense of direction was also messed up, and he was unable to follow a simple route in the city by himself. It is as if his brain had erased all those capabilities that were no longer necessary for survival in a cell no bigger than the back of a pick-up truck."

That study is published in under the title "The Effects of Solitary Confinement on the Brain" ( https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/brain-chemistry/201902/the-eff... ) It goes on

"In addition to the effects that loneliness will cause in the brain, solitary confinement also has an important component of sensory deprivation. The small cells where inmates are isolated are windowless, and though inmates are entitled to have one hour of physical exercise every day, sometimes this would not happen due to the busy schedule of the prison, King reported. The sensory deprivation contributes to important health impairments, such as alterations of circadian rhythms, the internal biological clock that regulates overall the proper functioning of our bodies."

True, most of us have not lived without windows. And unlike King we have not spent 30 years in solitary confinement. But we have lived without a view of anything other than empty streets or, in my case, sky. Yes the sky changes in an infinite array of bright to dark (or at least as it gets in a city where the world and his dog thinks a building is incomplete if it's not brightly illuminated and a bridge can't work without a mega-millions lumens advertising hoarding) cloudy to cloudless, peaceful to violent lightning which, sometimes, happens so close to my windows I can hear the air sizzle before the thunderclap a fraction of a second later). So, not the same as solitary confinement but certainly with elements of it.

And then there's this:

"Studies on mice have shown that one month of social isolation caused a decrease of around 20% of the total volume of neurons, though researchers saw that remaining neurons were branching out more than those mice that were not isolated. When the isolation went on longer — up to three months — researchers saw that the extra branching of the neurons was no longer happening, and that, in exchange, spines (structures that neurons develop to place the machinery that is required to communicate to each other) were greatly diminished. What does this mean? The branching that took place in the first month of isolation may represent some sort of compensatory mechanism that the brain puts in place in order to overcome and prevent the detrimental effects of isolation. However, when isolation went on for “too long," this mechanism seemed to come to an end, and trigger the loss of neuronal communication in the form of spine elimination."

Many of us have been in what amounts to isolation for three months or more.

The stresses that will arise when people are returning to the office and can't give each other a hug or even shake hands; can't share a place of food; can't even, in many cases, share the drive into work; when people return to public transport where, at every step of the journey (no pun, I meant it) there is someone invading the space they want to keep free - that, it appears to me, is something very close to the PTSD we already think about.

Is there a solution? I have no idea.

So why write this? For sure it's not because I find blurting out this kind of stuff cathartic. Actually, from a traditional English upbringing, putting my feelings into the public eye is very uncomfortable.

No, it's because I'm not a hard arse but I really don't scare easily. Most of my life until I fell down a mountain, I was an adrenaline junky long before the phrase came about.

I've walked around slums against all advice, travelled in minivans and on the kind of trains that the police don't get on. I've been in places with the kind of people who don't sit down because their guns get in the way. It's how I've always lived my life, except twice. Once when my handbag was snatched from my hand and now.

Now, I'm scared to go out.

I write this so you don't feel bad if you are scared too.

It's true. The fear of fear is worse than the fear itself.

But continued isolation when we don't need it is worse and it's doing us harm.

Be safe, stay home - but not all the time.


*Don't bother looking. I made them up. On second thoughts, if you are reading this ten days after it's written, maybe do look. Someone's probably done it by now."

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