Guest Column

Advice from an Ex-Political Prisoner: How to Cope With COVID-19 Isolation

By Bo Kyi 2 April 2020

I was imprisoned twice, for a total of eight years, for my political activities between 1990 and 1998. During this period, I spent over one year in solitary confinement. I was locked up in a small 8-by-12-foot room for 23 hours and 40 minutes each day.

In my room, a mat, a bowl for a toilet and food—provided by my family—were all I was allowed. Outside my room, there was a pot and a cup for drinking. I was not allowed to use a pillow because it was deemed as luxury.

I was not allowed to read and write. I could meet with my family for only 15 minutes every two weeks. Most days passed without my seeing another human being. I was bored. I was lonely.

I had a number of thoughts during that situation:

(1) I accepted my reality. I did not want to stay in this isolated prison cell, but I had no choice. I decided that I must survive.

(2) The Burmese military regime wanted me to suffer mentally after I was released from prison, due to a lack of mental stimulation while in prison. In order to continue to fight back, I endeavored to keep my brain active. I made a decision to study English while in isolation.

(3) I tried my best to study English. I was lucky. In the next cell down from me was Dr. Aye Chan, who could speak English and Japanese well. When the prison guard was away, I asked him to shout out one or two sentences in English. Then I wrote the words down on the concrete and memorized them.

I wrote down whatever I wanted to say on the concrete. I approached a prison guard who was sympathetic to us and asked him to smuggle in one page of a dictionary. He did, but after memorizing it, I had to eat the paper to avoid detection. Over time, I ate many pages of the dictionary.

Some of my friends composed songs, poems, novels, articles on the concrete, then erased them after memorizing them. That is the way we used our time. Do something. This is the best medicine when you are in isolation.

(4) I did not think about my release date because I knew I would be released when the time came, and this was out of my control. What I could try to control was my health. So I walked in the small room for many hours a day. Exercising will help your physical and mental health. So exercise! Walk at least 6,000 steps a day.

Now, because of COVID-19, many people are forced to stay at home or in hospitals for quarantine or care. Many are suffering from stress and other common mental health problems.

During my time in prison, I had no contact with the outside world, but I was able to survive by adapting my lifestyle and ways of thinking.

Today we have mobile phones and the internet, which we can use to contact our families and friends. But when in isolation, we need to be careful and avoid focusing on negative news all the time—try to read something positive to maintain balance.

There are other steps we can take to make this isolation easier for ourselves. Walk regularly. Practice meditation or yoga. Have a phone call with a counselor or friend.

Do something productive—whether it is small or big. Try to clean your house or cook. Do not think negatively. Try to think positive.

I am sure that even though we think we suffer a lot, many people around the world are suffering worse than we suffer. We cannot help being in isolation, but we can make it easier for ourselves by following this advice.

Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and currently works as joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

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