In 2009, when Swine Flu first started spreading in the US and Mexico, I was living in Mexico City. I remember strange weeks, the usually busy streets empty of people and everyone wearing a face mask. If you saw friends you stood your distance, no hugs or kisses to greet them. My boyfriend and I stocked up on food and followed the ups and downs through daily government press conferences. We bought frozen fruit and made cocktails – I remember strawberry, basil and vodka. We watched films and I tried to write a story about a man who lives in a country where a mysterious disease takes hold. There were rumours that Mexico would shut its borders. We stayed home a lot. All those memories are a world away from my experience of living through a pandemic again, this time a mother to a young daughter.
Many died in the Swine Flu pandemic, but the extent of its disruption was on a far smaller scale than what we are living through now. I don’t remember the details very well, not how long people stayed home nor how long they wore face masks. At some point things just went back to normal. Before then, there was a general sense of unease and impending doom brought by an invisible (potential) killer on the loose. There was also a strange sense of life interrupted, even of adventure. I was in my late twenties, and life – and the world – were very different. Social media was less invasive and less of a constant. One of my overwhelming memories is of sipping cocktails and waiting for things to change. Now I have a two-year-old daughter and, as pretty much everyone we know retreats into self-imposed semi-quarantine, many before being officially required to do so, we have spent most of our days at home making soup and baking cakes. We are trying to come up with new ways to pass the time.
The cliché is that a week is a long time in politics, and so it seems is the case with pandemics. Seven days before Boris Johnson’s announcement that this is the worst public health crisis in a generation, some of us were still managing to ignore Covid-19. Since then, there has been a palpable gear shift. Is anyone managing to think about anything else? The news is a long list of countries closing borders and schools, events cancelled, emergency measures enacted, videos of Italians and Iranians and Israelis stuck in their flats singing together on their balconies, memes to mask the fear with humour. Not long ago, the conversation was whether people were overreacting. Now it seems the debate is about whether enough is being done to avert the worst.
Within all this, there is my daughter who, at two years old, is hard pushed to really understand the implications of the changes unfolding around her. The wider world is always far darker and more complex than the intimate everyday of my little family. At times like these, however, you find yourself faced with the split between a bizarre reality and the immediate needs and ups and downs of your child.
Over the weekend, my sister, who has two young children of her own, asked how we were explaining things to our daughter. I realised that we hadn’t been. She had heard us talking about coronavirus, and the word “corona” had unnervingly slipped into narratives she spun for the games she was playing. Beyond that, we hadn’t broached the subject.
Since Johnson’s first coronavirus press conference last Thursday, my Whatsapp groups have been buzzing with back-and-forths about what this all means. People are wondering how it will impact their lives in the short term and how much we should all worry. I asked one group of mother friends, all parents to toddlers and babies, whether they were trying to explain what’s happening. The most anyone said they were trying to communicate was the importance of hand-washing and covering your mouth when you cough, or the fact that our children probably won’t see their grandparents in person for a while. As the week continued, the conversation turned to whether parents should take their children out of nursery now, before they are ordered to close. On Wednesday, England followed in the footsteps of Wales and Scotland, announcing school, nursery and university closures from Friday.
I live next door to my parents, so my daughter sees them every day. Since Thursday they have said hello from a distance, blowing kisses through the door. I don’t know how aware she is of the abrupt ceasing of physical contact, but surely she will feel its lack. My father, who is over 70, certainly does. On Wednesday morning, he asked me whether, based on the government’s latest guidance, he really wouldn’t be able to hug and kiss his three grandchildren. “Hugs are important,” he said. Maybe, over the next weeks and months, my daughter will notice that we are spending much more time cocooned together, trying to do our bit to stop the spread of a disease. We are lucky to be living somewhere warm and safe, not wanting for food or fuel, near enough to family not to feel alone. But even in the most privileged of circumstances, it is hard to navigate the parallel realities of parenting a child, where you must both shield them from the coming storm, while also trying to understand it for yourself. There is something anchoring in the need to protect someone you love.
All those years ago in Mexico, no one needed me to keep them safe. Maybe just being in the here-and-now with my daughter will keep the banality of life burning bright, through this time of profound and unsettling social change.