Few people were as prepared for the pandemic as Judith Matloff. The same can be said for her state of readiness when facing hurricanes, military coups, cholera outbreaks and stampeding mobs.
The woman knows her survivalist stuff, including how to be ready if forced to flee home with little notice.
“If you look at any war zone, it’s the men who are blowing things up and the women keeping society glued together.”
Matloff honed these skills during a decades-long journalism career covering civil wars, natural disasters, rebellions, gangs and drug cartels (this is a partial list) for major news outlets. These days she teaches crisis reporting to future journalists at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
In her timely new book — How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need — she distills disaster preparedness advice for whatever hazards those of us with desk jobs might face. (She also provided advice promised in the title of her book about the right way to move someone to safety.)
Women in crisis
For the record, there was no panic-buying TP, Lysol wipes and ramen in the Matloff household when the pandemic hit their home town of New York City. Matloff and her husband had everything they needed on hand for themselves and their college-age son. But if you were caught flat-footed when the lockdowns started in March, don’t beat yourself up, especially if you’re a woman.
Women tend to shoulder a heavy amount of the burden during crisis situations, Matloff says. “Traditionally, we are the caregivers — we’re not only trying to keep ourselves afloat, but also other people,” she says. “If you look at any war zone, it’s the men who are blowing things up and the women keeping society glued together.”
“Get rid of the female perfectionism that plagues us. You just have to get to the end of the day or week.”
Ensuring your family is safe, fed, entertained and sane during an ongoing crisis requires a lot of emotional and physical stamina. Psychologists have found that one of the best coping tools when you’re in conflict situations is to take it one day at a time and set very short-term goals. Matloff cautions against trying to project too much into the future. For example, if it’s 2 p.m., just focus on making it to dinnertime at 6 p.m. “This is particularly important for people who are living on their own and people taking care of children… Get rid of the female perfectionism that plagues us. You just have to get to the end of the day or week. You’ve got to pace yourself,” she says.
Also give yourself credit for how you’ve handled adversity so far. Having made it through four months of lockdown in a pandemic is an amazing feat. Even if you didn’t have a plan going in, you now have a lot of information about what worked and what didn’t. That knowledge, Matloff says, means “the crisis will be less upsetting the next time around.”
“Next time around?” Yeah. About that. Few people get through life without experiencing a few calamitous events. Imagining the worst is actually a good mental health exercise. It removes the element of surprise and gives you the chance to prepare for it, building your confidence and action plan.
Let’s say you face an emergency that’s the opposite of sheltering in place — one that requires you to quickly exit the house and be prepared for the unexpected out on the road. We asked Matloff to help us face the challenge like a pro.
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9 Things Every Woman Needs In Her “Go Bag”
Emergencies are hard to plan for, but not impossible. One way to be ready when you need to quickly flee — from a flood or fire or toward a relative in need or an overseas assignment — is to have a pre-packed bag with everything you need to survive for a few weeks away from home.
Matloff has kept a fully stocked “go bag” for the past 40 years. The contents have evolved based on circumstances. In years past, she packed to be ready for a 3 a.m. call from an editor to cover a breaking story in a war zone. These days it’s about being prepared if she or a family member comes down with COVID-19 and needs to be rushed to the hospital, or if they’re displaced from home for a while.
We can learn from her decades of perfecting the quick getaway and being prepared for virtually anything. Here are the essentials:
The bag: It needs to be portable, by you, if there’s no one around to help heave it into the getaway helicopter. A bag with a crossbody strap or a rolling carry-on are good choices.
Basic toiletries and pandemic gear: In addition to travel-sized versions of the toiletries you normally use, add a “pandemic kit” that includes enough gloves, masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer to last for a week or two.
Medical kit: Matloff recommends keeping two to four weeks of your prescription medications and any over-the-counter drugs you might need in your bag. (Include treatments for yeast infections and UTIs, if you’re prone to them.) She also carries three types of antibiotics to treat gut, skin and respiratory issues. “Most doctors are amenable to prescribing these when they hear the reason you’re asking for a supply,” she says. Set a reminder to check expiration dates.
Medical information: Pack a list of medications you take, copies of your medical history, health insurance information and contact information for your doctors, in case you have to go to the emergency room or be admitted to the hospital.
Versatile clothes: Keep in mind climate and likely living conditions (e.g. a climate-controlled shelter vs. outdoor campsite). Matloff recommends dark-colored, mix-and-match clothing (to better hide dirt) that can be hand washed and hung to dry overnight. (Similarly, dark nail polish hides grime.) Jeans are not a good choice because they’re heavy and take a long time to air dry. Wear comfortable shoes, and also pack flip flops, which come in handy if you need to use a public shower.
Matloff has a few extra things she’s learned to pack that apply to women:
- A stack of thin pantyliners to help you feel fresh if you run out of clean underwear.
- A scarf to wrap around your head in case you can’t wash your hair for a while, and also use as a light wrap — and to protect yourself from mosquitoes
- A travel vial of your favorite perfume. It’s handy if you can’t shower, but also is a small thing that can lift your spirits if you’re feeling crappy.
Rain gear: A long rain poncho will keep you and whatever you’re carrying dry when you’re on the go.
Important documents: In addition to carrying your ID and credit/debit cards and insurance cards, photocopy and/or take pictures of both sides of the cards in case you lose your wallet. Make a list of important contacts, as well as information about where to meet fellow travelers if separated. Also pack copies of your updated will and powers of attorney. If your homestead is in the line of danger (from fire, flooding or other destructive events), pack home insurance information, including coverage rules, contact information and a few blank forms if you need to file a claim from afar.
One important to-do before you’re in a situation where you need to leave the house quickly: Put all of your important financial files in one place. “Oftentimes it’s the woman in the household doing the bookkeeping and staying on top of the paperwork,” Matloff says. If that’s you, before you get outta Dodge, make sure that your loved ones are dialed in and know where to find the important paperwork and what bills need to be paid and how.
Cash: When Matloff lived in Africa, all commerce was cash-based. “We always had a house safe and a month’s supply of money needed to travel,” she says. She still likes to keep some cash on hand. But with people fearful of handling paper during a pandemic, electronic payments (debit and credit cards and apps like Venmo, Zelle and Paypal) have become more commonplace. She still keeps cash in her “go bag” — noting that the germ doesn’t last long on paper and cardboard — but takes precautions by wiping down money and wearing gloves for transactions and shopping.
Electronics: To save time and avoid a time-wasting hunt for accessories, Matloff recommends purchasing extra cables and batteries for your most-used electronics to keep in your bag. Her phone and laptop are always fully charged and ready to go. Reading material is stored on her Kindle, which has a battery that lasts two weeks without charging. Another must-have: A hands-free headlamp. “Even in New York we’ve had blackouts,” she says. Depending on circumstances, she also carries a portable hand crank NOAA emergency weather alert radio which can be a lifesaver if power and the cell network goes down.
Lastly, as promised …
How to drag a body
In addition to the safety tips Matloff dispenses in How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need, she also delivers on the first part of the title.
First, if possible, don’t move the person. Instead, wait until a first responder arrives so that you don’t do more damage to the person’s bones, brain or organs. (We’re assuming they’re alive for this catastrophe prep visioning exercise.) If no one’s coming and it’s on you to move the person, start by shifting them until they are flat on their back on the ground, with arms to the sides. You want to keep their head and neck as stable as possible when you move them. Grab their shirt on both sides below the shoulder blades, and pull it up above the shoulders to cradle their neck and head.
We hope you never have to use this skill, but if it comes up, you’ll know what to do.
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