Anna Dusseau | 18th March 2020
Yesterday felt weird. After the giddy realisation of the PM’s speech on Monday – significantly ramping up the COVID-19 containment effort and advising the UK to avoid all unnecessary travel and contact – things felt quite different, all of a sudden. A few schools with dwindling numbers are still open, presumably to prevent the total economic choke-hold that a nationwide school closure would bring. But apart from that? Nada. The GP has stopped taking face to face appointments and, in order to collect a prescription for my son’s eczema cream, I had to queue outside the practice while my temperature was taken and my hands sanitised. Inside, our usual bustling village surgery was empty save for the steady whir of a fan in the corner of the waiting room and the click of a keyboard behind the glass pane, where the receptionist was taking phone calls. It felt..surreal. We took the kids for a walk in the crop fields at the back of the village and watched them run on ahead in the sunshine, snatching up wildflowers and shying in the buffeting wind. We saw nobody. And there was something incredibly Faulks-esque in the silence of it all, the empty play park, the sound of birdsong. As if the world had stopped turning.
We have friends scattered all over the seven continents and, on a day when all activity suddenly ground to a halt, we found ourselves walking amid the daisies making a mental list of who to hit up on Skype when we got home. That day, we video called and sent video messages to several families. First grandma, who lives by the sea near Cornwall. Then friends from South Africa, where schools are closed and most families are self-isolating. Our homeschool buddies in Canada, who are playing in the snow and hoping for a flight to get them back to the UK. London. Hong Kong. And our favourite homeschooling family in the next village who, like us, are currently staying home and taking long walks. In a twist of perfect timing, the baby decided that our Tuesday afternoon Skypeathon would be the moment for him to cut his back teeth and so, what I mostly did was wrestle with a fractious baby seal, while my older children curled up on the sofa and chatted away with their friends. And for the first time in the 24 hours since the UK ramped up the intensity of its containment policy, I felt my heart lift and the anxiety I had been feeling about empty supermarket shelves, a national health system at breaking point and the seemingly unstoppable economic landslide, melted away. What I could hear, above the sound of baby Gizmo yelling in my ear, was laughter.
Their conversation went something like this. “Mikah?” “Yeeeees?” “Do you know about the coronavirus?” “Er, yes, of couuuurse!” “Well, have you thought of a vaccine?” “Not yet. You?” “Nearly. Hey, can you do this with your ear?” “Wow! No..I..haven’t tried that.” Cue peals of diabolic laughter. It was nothing like Channel 4 News. Nor The Week Junior podcast, which I had put on earlier for the kids over breakfast. “How are the children coping?” my mum wanted to know and, looking at them, I thought they seemed to be doing just fine. Children are practical. More than that, they are creative. In the Hong Kong district of Sheung Wan, Sally and her sister had made a picture book telling a story about all their world school friends meeting up and going to the beach. She read it aloud to my kids – her dad holding the phone steady and her little sister, Bo, turning the pages – and at the end, when the babies ate seaweed and spat it out, everyone fell about in fits of giggles; my own battered android hitting the floor once again in the true embodiment of LMFAO. Or ROFL, if you want to keep it PG. A 15 minute drive from our house, Seb and Ezra had spent the morning making some astonishingly good flowers out of crepe paper and pipe cleaners, causing my artistic daughter to press her nose curiously against the screen in her enthusiasm to learn how they had created them. By dinner time, the kitchen was strewn with paper flowers, providing the atmosphere of a wedding or medieval banquet, as the kids ate soup and sandwiches, discussing their day and hiccuping with laughter all over again, as they recalled their French cousin pulling faces behind her papa, while he attempted to fill us in on the gravity of the military lockdown in France. It felt cathartic and, instead of tuning in to catch the headlines before bath time, we listened to music and danced round the kitchen, throwing handfuls of crepe paper flowers at each other. Even Gizmo stopped crying for a bit.
Because – unlike the hypochondria and fake news spread by the adult-dominated world of social media – studies show that real human contact and communication in itself is good for your mental health. Even if we rewind from the recent Dave TV adverts reminding us to text a friend to support positive mental health, back in 2008 the Department of Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge had released a study indicating that ‘microbehavioral evidence [shows] that infants are born able to express the internal activity of their brains’. So communication is not just therapeutic in terms of processing the rapidly changing environment around us, but is in fact hardwired into our neurobehavioural programming from birth. It’s not just nice to have a chat with a friend; it’s essential to our well-being and survival as a species. And yesterday afternoon, I was in no doubt of the validity of this research, as I watched my 6 year old methodically showing Benji’s little brother Arlo, in Hackney, how to wash his hands correctly while singing Happy Birthday twice through to make sure you’ve done it for 20 seconds. Or my feral 4 year old, popping up from behind the sofa like Punch and Judy to shoot out helpful public safety announcements like “no more poos and no more pasta for a whole year!” He should be the speech writer for Number 10, this one. In reality though, amid the fart jokes and raucous giggles, these guys were processing and making sense of a world which suddenly seems to have gone quite mad. I sat there, rolling my eyes and fake-tutting, and for a moment our over-populated planet felt a whole lot smaller, safer, and less sinister.
In the grip of this global pandemic, we need journalists keeping us up to date on developments and – my word – we need scientists working day and night on a vaccine, but on top of that, I realise that we also need to listen to the voices of our funny, curious and creative kids, who are sharing tips on how to make crepe paper flowers, rather than elbowing their neighbour in the eye as they scrabble to stockpile enough toilet paper to take them through to the start of Wimbledon. I mean, if it’s on. After the initial Monday evening adrenaline rush of acknowledging that we are probably a step or two away from the system collapse that we are witnessing in France and Italy, I found myself on Tuesday sitting with my back to the springtime sunshine pouring through the living room window and listening to the tinkle of children’s laughter dance around the room. Sometimes, while waiting for Pfitzer and BionTech to develop a vaccine that will save us all next year, we can centre ourselves again and make sense of the world around us by switching off the news – just for a bit – and tuning into the small things. Like paper flowers. Fart jokes. And birdsong.
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