The enormity of the situation really hit home on Friday 20th when I left work early to pick my kids from school. And it only hit me after I’d picked the two of them (both mid-primary) from class and we were walking to the car with them leading the way while I strolled behind. “Exactly what is going through their innocent minds” I asked myself repeatedly. “What do they think is going on? What do they think the coronavirus is? Do they know we don’t know when they’ll come back to school?” So many questions ran through my head during the short walk from class to the parking lot, some a bit more foreboding and darker than the ones I’ve mentioned above. I suspected at the time that they too had many questions of their own, a suspicion that has since been borne out by the continuous stream of questions from them – here’s a sample:
- Why are we breaking off on Friday – is that when the coronavirus will reach Uganda? (this was posed after we told them about the President’s directive to close schools)
- If the coronavirus doesn’t have a cure, does it mean everyone who gets it dies? (Quite hard to answer questions to do with death from your 8 year old offspring)
- Ok, if people are getting better even though there’s no medicine, where does the virus go? (Follow up to 2 above which we tried to answer by explaining what antibodies are…who said O-Level Biology was useless?)
- I thought the best medicine for coronavirus would be mixing all the flu and cough medicine we usually take with sanitizer… (Not a question but this statement had me sit up, startled and shaken! Properly!)
- Why can’t I go to school yet you’re going to work? Is the virus only in my school and not in your workplace? (This was from our 3 year old who only started school last month to his mother yesterday morning…I kid you not! I fled the room immediately)
- Does the coronavirus have eyes? (This came in shortly after today’s Presidential address where he announced the suspension of public transport services)
- So how does it move around? (Follow up to 6 where we laboured to explain that a virus is not exactly the same as the animals they’re acquainted with and after struggling to convince them that it is so small as to be invisible)
And so on – I’ve forgotten some of the questions – it’s been a constant barrage. But answering them has been…oba how…how do I even describe what it’s like talking about the coronavirus with these little ones?
See – like many parents out there, our kids are – almost literally – everything to us. Part of the dread that I described in Part 1, that dread that has slowly descended upon me over the past few weeks is the knowledge that COVID-19 may have a horrible, unforeseen impact on my family. Or on other families known to us. And yet, there is almost nothing we can do beyond the self-isolation and hygiene measures. Like a family sheltering in a cottage in the face of an approaching tropical storm, the best we can do is huddle together (figuratively in this case, not literally given the need for “unsocial” distancing) and wait for it to pass. Just like a tropical storm can sweep you all away or miraculously leave everything intact but you can’t really tell as you wait nervously, so we are at the mercy of this particular storm. And even if we weather it, there’s no guarantee all our friends and loved ones will. Even if they do, there’s no guarantee that entirely many upright, honest citizens will.
What a horrible feeling! I’m not sure what the worst feeling known to man is – and there are many excruciatingly painful ones such as grief, emotional pain, depression etc – but surely helplessness ranks somewhere near the top? Who can fail to be moved by the pictures coming out of Italy of row upon row of caskets, of funeral services attended by just the one priest and a single family member, of overwhelmed doctors and nurses? Or the stories of what it is like to fall really ill – the sensation of drowning as one’s lungs fail? Or the knowledge that it does not discriminate between the rich and poor, celebrity and commoner? And this is even before you start contemplating the non-human impact; for example, to economies and families whose livelihoods have been so abruptly cut off? All this serves to fuel the wretched feeling of helplessness that in turn simply increases the sense of dread and horror. If only one could cut off all access to news but how can one even do that? Even if you did, the presence of your children at home, the many Skype and Zoom sessions and the absence of taxis and boda-bodas from our streets would be a very present reminder that it is not business as usual. And it will not be – for a very long time.
Unprecedented is a word I’ve heard being used before to describe certain situations. You know – things like “the team are gunning for an unprecedented N’th title in a row”. Once upon a time, a certain president used it but being a man of twitchy Twitter fingers, he typed “unpresidented”. The last few weeks have shown me that it was clearly being misused in all those cases. This, my friends, is the true definition of “unprecedented”.