I Called Quarantined Strangers All Over the World

An app called QuarantineChat lets you unload your feelings about your isolation on people you don't know.
08 April 2020, 5:00am
The author using QuarentineChat
Photo: Alessandro Pilo

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

I’ve been in quarantine in my Budapest apartment for weeks. Although the situation here isn’t as bad as my native Italy, I decided not to take any risks. Needless to say, life is quite boring and I spend too much time on the internet. My only contact with the outside world has been reading super depressing news or watching Instagram stories where everyone seems to be living their best quarantine life.

Then I read about an app that connects strangers living in isolation all over the world. QuarantineChat was created by Max Hawkins and Danielle Baskin, two American programmers and artists who together launched a similar app called Dialup in 2019. The idea is to push people beyond their bubble and beat loneliness by talking to someone they don’t know. “While people can still talk to their friends and family virtually, the experience of spontaneously talking to a stranger is now missing from many of our lives," the app description says.

QuarantineChat is similar to WhatsApp – you need a phone number to use it but they're online calls, so it’s free. Baskin explained in an email that the app calls you once or twice a day at different times to "make it feel like a surprise", as she said, but you can set up specific times, too. Launched on the 1st of March, QuarantineChat currently counts more than 4000 users in 87 countries, and that number is climbing.

With nothing better to do, I downloaded the app, created a profile and waited. I got a call that afternoon – if I'd rejected it, the person on the other end of the line would have been reconnected with someone else. When I picked up, a soothing female voice greeted me and gave me suggestions on how to break the ice, like, “Look outside your window and describe what you see".

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Photo courtesy of QuarantineChat.

I was connected with Michael*, an artist from Brussels. At first, we both giggled nervously; it felt like we were on a blind date. But after a couple of questions, the conversation started flowing. We talked about our now-futile plans: I had a few work projects that had gone up in smoke and couldn't visit friends and family in Italy for a while. Michael was supposed to go to Japan for an art exhibition he was a part of, now postponed to October. But he had found a silver lining – the lockdown brought him closer with his roommate, whom he hadn't known very well before the outbreak.

The next day I spoke to Ali, a programmer from Lahore, the second biggest city in Pakistan. He said his prime minister didn't want a strict lockdown for economic reasons. “He said we can’t afford to take measures like they have in China and Italy,” Ali said. But Ali thought a bigger outbreak was inevitable, so he'd been in voluntarily isolation for over a week. His friends told him he should rent his apartment out and move to the countryside with them, but he wouldn't be able to take his cat and he didn't want to leave it behind.

Then there was Carla from Paris, who was pretty funny. Carla said the lockdown wasn't getting her down because she killed time playing endless card and board games with her roommates. Fareed*, a Saudi medical student I met the following morning, was doing pretty well too – he was quarantined with his family in his home just outside Ryad. It was early afternoon in Saudi Arabia and Fareed was in his garden smoking and having a drink under the sun. “I’m a very social person, I spend a lot of time on the go,” he said. “I want to use this time to get to know myself better and to look inside, like you would at a spiritual retreat.”

All this positivity made me wonder if I was the only person with mixed feelings about these unstable times. But the next day, I met Zack, a New Yorker working in the gig economy. He didn’t want to go into detail about who he worked for, but Zack was the first person who really opened up about his concerns – he was worried he wouldn’t have a support network to rely on if he lost his already precarious job. “My life already felt quite fragmented and solitary, but the crisis means I'm only going to feel more isolated,” he said.

No matter where you live or who you live with, it's normal to feel lonely during an emergency of this scale. In a surprising way, QuarantineChat gives you back some of that lost connection – offering a unique perspective from someone living a totally different life during the same global crisis. And sometimes, it's easier opening up to a stranger.

* Names changed