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Mom Talk: When Coronavirus Comes Close to Home

Written by Serena Minott

Today’s timely Mom Talk comes from Serena Minott, a globetrotting mama, attorney, and kids’ book author who we have featured before—albeit on a lighter topic. Today, Serena is back to share her experience living in France with two small kids as COVID-19, or the Coronavirus, spreads rapidly in towns nearby, and their own sense of safety begins to slip away. Serena has traveled with her family, including Asha, 6, and Amal, 1, to locales including Ethiopia, Indonesia, Singapore, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Senegal, and dozens more, and their worldwide adventures inspired mom and daughter to team up and create the children’s travel book series The Amazing Adventures of Aya & Pete. Read on to see what’s it’s like when coronavirus comes close to home, and how Serena has had to adjust her fearless approach to family travel in recent weeks. 

When we left France for winter school holidays at the beginning of February, I didn’t think much of going through the airport and traveling with two small children for a transit stop in London, then flying home from there to Miami. We packed our bags, as usual, and we made our way along our journey, honestly (and this may sound quite blasé or naive now), but without much thought about face masks or lethal viruses. Of course, at the time, the Coronavirus, recently renamed “COVID-19,” was well publicized, but its spread outside of China was just starting to unfurl, mainly in South Korea. So, we flew back to the United States, and from the looks of things on our flights and at the airports, there was really not much to be concerned about Coronavirus. There were few, if any, other passengers wearing face masks (I think I observed two people at Heathrow airport with masks), and there were no temperature checks or other health screening protocols.

While in the U.S., I visited New York City during President’s Day/Valentine’s Day weekend. On Saturday, my sister, ever adventurous, suggested dim sum for brunch. “Okay,” I thought. “Where’s the dim sum place?” Chinatown. Of course. So off we went to Chinatown. The restaurant was packed with people across two separate floors. But the streets of Chinatown were completely deserted. I had been to this area of the city enough times to know that on any given day, it’s busy, but especially on Saturdays. On this particular day, during a long holiday weekend, the streets were barren. At the time, New York had no documented cases of Coronavirus. While the thought of skipping dim sum did cross my mind, my sister and I were undeterred, but clearly there were many who were taking no chances.

Fast forward to the end of our break towards the end of February. We returned to France. And very, very quickly, things take a huge turn. News breaks that outside of China and South Korea the countries with the most cases of the virus and reported deaths from infection are Iran and Italy. With this, the reality of having the world’s fastest growing COVID-19 outbreak right next door in northern Italy comes home to me, and it is scary as hell.

We now know that COVID-19 has spread on every continent except Antarctica and is now reportedly in at least 50 countries. So, why is the outbreak in Italy particularly frightening? To understand, you must appreciate where we are and the cultural habits of our town. We live in the south of France, two hours from the Pyrenees, and a short direct flight to northern Italy or Switzerland. For winter holidays, everyone (and their mère) goes skiing somewhere in one of these places. So, when the news broke that several cities in northern Italy were locked down for COVID-19, and notices started going up around town on schoolhouse doors, I realized that what seemed so far away just a month ago was now very real and very personal.

First, there was a note in my daughter’s classroom “liaison” notebook. IF YOU HAVE TRAVELED DURING WINTER HOLIDAYS TO CHINA, MACAU, HONG KONG, SINGAPORE, SOUTH KOREA, IRAN OR NORTHERN ITALY (LOMBARDY OR VENICE), PLEASE ADVISE THE STAFF IMMEDIATELY, AND REMAIN AT HOME FOR A PERIOD OF 14 DAYS. I read the note, signed off as required so her teacher knew it had been viewed, and sat quietly to give it some thought. There are several students in her class and at school who had traveled to northern Italy during the break. Perhaps others had also traveled to East Asia, or to Iran, but that’s purely conjecture. Italy, and the affected regions in particular, we knew for a fact. The next day, a bright yellow sign with a similar notice was taped to the entrance door of her school. The same notice appeared at my son’s crèche (daycare).

I see these things, and I watch the news, and I talk with the Italian parents at school who rebuff the whole idea, and I note that even the French are reserving their beloved “la bise” (two air kisses on each cheek). I cannot help but shake my head and wonder if we are living in an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale or Bird Box.

For something that barely registered to me less than a month ago, I’m now faced with the very real possibility that it may just be a matter of time before things get out of hand and we truly start to feel as though we are living in apocalyptic times. Bill Maher said it best on his show Real Time a few episodes ago—in a crisis, many of the normal, familiar things will appear the same as usual. The buses will still run. Your cell phone will still work. You can still check IG. There is water for your daily shower. Your favorite shows will still be on television. It will feel awfully normal at first. It doesn’t really happen like in the movies (sorry Bird Box).

But slowly, the changes start to creep in. Five years ago in France, the big threat and justification for increased military presence and an ongoing “state of emergency” was Islamic extremism and radicalization of homegrown French born “terrorists.” So, we became somewhat accustomed to seeing soldiers walking around the cities and airports, five-men deep, outwardly carrying machine guns in full military gear. Fast forward five years, and there’s an even greater police and military presence throughout our city and all across France. Every Saturday, and sometimes during the week if there’s a “grève” (strike) or “manifestation” (protest), hundreds of riot police officers, canine units, and heavy military equipment descend on our town to protect against French citizens protesting wages, social security, workers rights and proposed pension reforms, or the Gilets Jaunes movement.

With the added threat of coronavirus, we are seeing shortages of face masks, metres-long queues in some countries for them, quarantines, school closures, municipal lockdowns, closed borders, increased xenophobia, and stepped up anti-immigration measures. It is surreal. As a frequent traveler with small children, it is worrisome. I asked my 6-year-old last evening what she knew about Coronavirus, and her response was, with a French accent (I’m not kidding), “it’s horrible!” Clearly, she must have heard someone at school say something to this effect. We took some time to explain to her what the virus is, how it is spread, and how she can keep herself and others safe (she is a finger sucker, and has thus probably picked up more pathogens and antibodies from more places around the world than, I dare say, 98% of the population). Thankfully, it seems that children have been less affected by the virus, with much lower rates of infection than adults.

For the time being, we are, like the rest of the world, just watching and waiting. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which I had plans to attend at the end of March has since been postponed. We have travel plans booked in April for Malta and Jordan. Who knows what will happen between now and then. Perhaps new cases of the COVID-19 infection will slow down, the spread of the disease will eventually cease, and it will soon be eradicated globally. Or it could go another way, and there will be massive economic, social, and political disruption everywhere for the foreseeable future. I’m not a pessimist, so I refuse to think that way. But I am a realist. And I realize the threat of this disease has become very, very real in a very short time.

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  1. Ellen says...

    It’s fine to share this perspective, by why not also share the perspective from an Asian American mother or family – the perspective of these who are directly impacted by the racism and bias stemming from misconceptions surrounding COVID-19?

    • Jane says...

      I’d like to add that the idea that getting dim sum in Chinatown is risky is based on a racist stereotype that is not helpful to be propagating at this time. There is no reason to believe that one would be anymore likely to get COVID-19 in NYC’s Chinatown than anywhere else in New York. Please try not to implicitly encourage racism.

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