How Quarantine Affects Our Dreams and Reality

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People are noting that they are dreaming differently while in quarantine | Illustration by Jer Dee ( for COMMONER.

It feels like we’re in a different and darker timeline. Yesterday, one of the co-creators of Commoner sent me a link to an article entitled “Having weird dreams in quarantine? You are not alone.” A few days before that, I also tweeted, through my personal account, “Anyone [else] having weird and vivid dreams lately?” after dreaming about getting bitten by an ape while walking with a high school classmate. This particular dream struck me for being more real than usual — as if I was really there and I can feel the pain of the bite.

Others are also noting that their dreams have become more bizarre while in quarantine, and that they can remember them in vivid details. There were dreams about being trapped in their high school campus, fighting the head of their payroll department, being at home with a famous actress who later on drank cat piss, and going to an underground art gallery with Niall Horan where a performance artist is held hostage.

In a previous study about the psychological effects of 9/11, researchers found out that there were sudden changes in how their subjects dreamt in the aftermath of the incident. Even if they don’t personally know anyone who died from the attacks, the underlying second-hand distress that they experienced from stories and media coverage were enough to modify the way they dream. Similarly, an exploration of the dreams of 79 British officers held captive during the Battle of France in 1940 to 1942 showed that their desire to escape and do regular activities (like having sex and eating out with friends) often manifest in their dreams.

It seems like this strange phenomenon is happening globally. Robert Bosnak, an American psychoanalyst, said that across Asia, Australia, and the U.S., people are “dreaming up a storm.” This may be due to the realities that we are experiencing while we are awake. Even in small amounts, news and information about the confirmed cases, deaths, other political and economic circumstances can cause anxiety and stress. And these emotions are carried to our sleep, and they trickle through our dreams.

During sleep, our brain enters different stages. One of which is the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage, where most neurological activities take place in our sleep. At this stage, the messengers in our brains communicate actively, allowing for new transmitters to form, and for dreaming to occur. When we wake up from a dream while at this stage, we can remember our dreams in better detail.

It’s interesting to uncover more layers about the way we’re dreaming in a pandemic. With enough accounts, researchers may be able to find similarities in the things we dream about. They may also find differences, say, on people of different economic backgrounds or geographical locations. Maybe even the way our respective local leaders respond to the crisis contribute to the dreams that we’re having.

Further studies may lead to better understanding of other facets of this pandemic, and how people are affected on a more personal level because of the quarantine, social distancing measures, and one’s lived reality. For the meantime, it helps to keep track of our dreams — write them down or tell them as stories to others as a way to process and recognize the mental and emotional effects of the pandemic. If we’re critical enough, our dreams can also serve as tools to help us shape our new reality in the future.

Meanwhile, our reality morphs in unbelievable speed. The hostage taking in Greenhills and the eruption of Mount Taal could’ve been the biggest stories for the year, but recalling these events makes me feel like they’re in a distant (if not entirely different) past, even if they just occurred a couple of weeks ago. Forgetting that they happened, however, does a great disservice to the analysis of how we are coping with the pandemic from a political and economic perspective.

For one, we were able to see how the government responded to these crises. More and more people started asking questions, bringing to the surface the intersection of emergency situations, economic inequality, governance, and policies. The hostage taking incident highlighted the need to revisit labor laws concerning regularization and unjust wages. The eruption of Mount Taal intersects with residential zoning policies, calamity response, and risk reduction. Both are case studies that we can measure the competence of the government with.

The pandemic, a tragic natural anomaly, puts into perspective the crucial role of economics and policy in a public health crisis. As much as we somehow find strange comfort in our trips to grocery stores, it’s also a reminder of the limitations that are in place due to the quarantine. But the truth is commerce and policy have always intertwined with public health. Quarantine itself, an imposition of an institution (i.e. local or national government) to shelter in place, has a history that concerns commerce. In 14th century, the Black Death recurred over the course of a few years. In order to slow down the spread of the disease, port authorities in Venice, Italy required ships coming in from cities with high infection rates to stay off-shore for 30-days. The term used was trentina, derived from trenta or thirty. Then, thirty days was extended to forty, and included control over land travels. It became known as Quarantina, from quaranta or forty. A few centuries later, around 19th to 20th Century, a patch of land somewhere in the East Coast called North Brother Island was known to house people living with infectious diseases. One of them was “Typhoid Mary” or Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid who infected others because of her work as a cook. She was forced to quarantine in North Brother Island — a deserted patch of land detached from the rest of New York City. After three years in quarantine, she promised to never work as a cook again and was allowed to go back to the city. But she was exiled again to the island after breaking her promise and was forced to stay there for the rest of her life.

As much as quarantine segregates those who are infected from the rest of the population for the sake of public health, it is also an effort deemed necessary to preserve the well-being of society and economy. The differences in the way people live reveal themselves because of quarantine. These gaps have always existed, but asking people to stay in place and make do with their own resources magnify these gaps even more. While it scaffolds public health, it also saves the relationship between people, money, and power from agitation — avoiding economic stagnation and its repercussions to trickle down to the individual level.

President Duterte is fully aware of the strain that the quarantine puts on the marginalized sector of society. In his April 6 presser, he expressed his sympathy to the poor, and said that they are taking the necessary actions to alleviate their living conditions. He is also aware of how the quarantine can potentially collapse the economy. In fact, our analysis showed that he talked about his fear and despair in relation to the economic future of the country way more than he talked about the government’s action plan.

The impending economic crash will be exceptionally difficult because it covers all sectors of society. In an interview with journalist Ezra Klein, Moody’s Analytic’s Chief Economist Mark Zandi said that the abrupt stoppage of economic movements today is just the first of four waves of economic pains we will experience. Closed restaurants, gyms, barbershops and limited transportation options are just the tip of the iceberg. Eventually, as businesses lose more money, employees will be laid off en masse leading to an unprecedented unemployment rate. This might affect those in middle management to rank-and-file staff. On the third wave, those who have savings from their earnings, or pensions, insurance payouts and retirement plans will also defer from huge spending. Automotive and real estate industries will be affected, as well as those in hospitality and leisure businesses. Companies are also less likely to pursue new ventures and projects as they attempt to gain back the losses incurred during the pandemic. We’re already seeing the first and second waves of this economic crash. The third and fourth might come sooner or later.

The International Monetary Fund also warned that the economic collapse will be something comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and we’ll only be able to see partial recovery next year. Using the Great Depression as benchmark should not sound the alarms for economists and historians. At that particular period, though we were still reeling from the effects of the first world war, we were able to maintain a sense of stability due to the nature of our economy (which hinged heavily on local businesses and exports). However, I understand the need to put things in perspective in order to paint a better picture. At this time, the economic pains are not caused by a sudden crash of the stock market, which caused the Great Depression. They’re also not due to devaluation of money or banks borrowing way too much, which were the culprits of the 1997 Asian economic crash and 2008 financial crisis, respectively. This raises the alarm because of the sheer coverage of the pandemic. Every single person can feel the effect of the lockdown in their personal lives. As a third world country, we may suffer greatly because of the pre-existing problems we already have, such as in healthcare, wages, and quality of life. Whatever it will do to our collective consciousness is up for discovery as we move forward in this lockdown and the new normal that comes after.

Those who are in the food supply sector, like groceries, supermarkets, fast food chains, small to medium goods providers and delivery — they’re the ones keeping the economy moving, aside from other essential sectors like healthcare and the government. The cash assistance that people receive serve as additional stimulus to keep the economy alive. After this lockdown, the assistance for lower-income (and maybe even for middle-income workers) must continue so there’s money flowing from the individual level towards businesses. However, the problems about socio-economic disparities are systematic, and likewise require systematic solutions. Economic reforms such as better wages, tax amendments and eradication of corruption should be on the table. Needless to say, we also need to elect leaders who carry empathy and vision not only to avoid the economic pains from a pandemic, but to simply make every Filipino’s life better.

President Duterte did not order any travel bans until January 31 – almost a week after Hubei province (where the biggest outbreak of Novel Coronavirus was happening) declared a lockdown. DOH Secretary Francisco Duque justified this delay by citing diplomatic and political repercussions. Duterte was also on record for denying the gravity of the virus. In February 3, he even said that the reactions are almost hysterical, when there was “no need for it.”

The instances of denial in the course of this crisis remind me of the circumstances during the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. According to historian Francis Gealogo, denial was one of the most dangerous factors that made the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in the Philippines catastrophic. As an American colony at that time, we were gearing up for the first world war. In order to keep the morale of soldiers, the government withheld the truth from the public, even passing it off as a regular seasonal trancazo. When it became apparent that this trancazo is anything but regular, it was too late. Even with quarantine measures, about 88,000 deaths were recorded. Around the world, about 50 to 100 million died — at least 30 million more than the recorded death toll from the first world war.

Transparency is an effective tool that helps people react accordingly. It also gives the government a fair chance to garner support from the public. However, it seems that the idea that governance requires some level of transparency, especially in a crisis, still evades many of our leaders to this day. People are looking for answers and clarity, and the least that leaders can do is be truthful and create a clear action plan; not bury the facts with unnecessary information. Keeping faith alive is one thing; but giving false hope is another.

The process of vaccine development is not exempt from the political and economic nature of a pandemic. In January, Chinese scientists in Wuhan made the genetic sequence of the Novel Coronavirus-19 available for other researchers around the world. As it turns out, 80 to 90% of its genetic sequence is similar to SARS’, allowing laboratories to revisit projects from the SARS outbreak and use them as jump-off points for the CoViD-19 vaccine. Yet even with a head start, it will take roughly about 18 months to successfully develop a vaccine that is ready for distribution. By then, thousands of lives are already gone, and we will probably be busy rebuilding what’s left in society (that is if we do not witness a second wave of a more lethal strain of CoViD-19).

It would be remiss to not point out that this vaccine has economic and political rewards. US, Europe, and China are leading the race, and the first country to develop a vaccine will have an upper-hand on the distribution. They will surely prioritize their own people, leaving the rest of the world at their mercy. Even with appeals to defer from hoarding, the vaccine will certainly not be available immediately for distribution in other countries. And when it becomes a product for export, the profit from the vaccine can refurbish the broken parts of the pioneer country’s economy. They will be painted as hero in the international community, while also gaining diplomatic and economic favors.

A day’s stretch while in a crisis allows for many developments and regressions to occur and coincide. For the government, every minute should count, especially when public health is at stake. Militarization, distribution of relief funds and goods, and the enhanced community quarantine are all interim solutions. None of these will quash the virus by itself. We will only be able to see a better and more reliable picture of reality when mass testing is implemented and health officials trace contacts intensively. The number of cases will surely rise when these two measures are implemented, but at least we can track the infection and adjust accordingly. It can also help us imagine how long the quarantine will be.

And when all of this is over, there are still more problems that we have to solve — and they are way below the surface of what we currently see. Because the truth is, even before this pandemic happened, Filipinos have been facing crises day after day. The fear and anxiety we are feeling because of the possibility of unemployment and intense economic regression have long existed in the psyche of millions of Filipinos. They’ve been dealing with these, and they are far more familiar with the feeling of displacement and uncertainty.

While many of us are still coping with the changes in how bizarre and vivid our dreams have become while on lockdown, the most marginalized communities have been carrying the weight of their insecurity and anger to their sleep for years. Those in the frontlines have been neglected for far too long, starting from unjust compensation, insufficient benefits, and lack of support. Their pains are much more nuanced because they were tossed to battle the crisis face-to-face. Our applause and adorations, all the video montages and musical tributes — they lift the spirits. But there are systematic problems that require systematic solutions.

Emily Maitlis, an anchor from BBC brilliantly puts it in one of her opening words for her show: “This is a health issue with huge ramification on social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications on public health.” The quarantine and the virus will stop somewhere. But its imprint, just like the imprints of any major catastrophic events in the past, will remain. And it’s up to us what to do with it.

Written for Commoner

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Last edited: April 17, 2020

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