In Melbourne, March 2020, my pandemic heroine was five years old. She watched as we, her parents — Dad a respiratory physician, Mum a psychiatrist — entered a bewildering kind of frenzy.
Dad was to start working in the COVID-19 wards.
We made a sign together, a wonky red cross at the top denoting that the laundry was now a part of the hospital. It was dangerous, we explained, for anyone except Dad to ever set foot in there. When Dad came back from the real hospital, we explained to her, there was a danger that a new virus might try to hitch a ride home with him. We would prevent this by making sure it couldn’t get past the “laundry hospital”.
The sign on the front of Lisa Hounsley’s “laundry hospital” at home.
Our playfulness on one hand (a cat, a small child, and a washing basket, all drawn with big red crosses striking them out, were added to the sign) was jarring alongside our desperate, urgent, sincerity on the other (“Daddy comes home through the laundry, where he removes all his clothing, washes his phone and keys, and then must absolutely never be touched while he walks to the shower”). We worried about this strange emotional mixture, but it was the best we could do for her. The “hospital shower”, which had been our heroine’s bathroom, must also now never be touched. This, too, we tried transforming into a game: “Dad will rent it from you until the virus is gone.” Dad solemnly signed a contract for “A Leven Dollars”.
As might be expected from any child who has been raised on nightly tales from Grimm to the Gruffalo, our heroine’s subsequent fears assumed an animal form. She told me of a dream – “there were snakes everywhere in our house, but you and Daddy acted like they weren’t there”.
We hurriedly bought and assembled a bed, a desk — a spare room should he be exposed. We made protocols: left-side gate contaminated; right-side gate safe to touch. We bought a pulse oximeter, upgraded our thermometer. We letter-dropped invitations and created an online support network for our street. We devoured news, from colleagues in hospitals overseas — Italy, New York — and tried to orient ourselves to this world, in which the doctors had become patients, in which our house blurred with the hospital.
Dad’s making became more elaborate: he designed experiments, published academic research papers, relating to the virus, to PPE. He shaved his head – streamlining the process of his multiple daily showers, but taking us all further from normality. He lobbied his employers for upgraded aerosol protection. I found him papers, listened, made suggestions, interrogated his logic. How could he protect himself, his patients, and his colleagues? We would keep making, which was a kind of running.
Our heroine made things, too. Sponge shoes, to protect Dad’s feet from coronavirus on his way to the shower. A drawing for Dad, every day. She sensed the snakes, coiled invisibly beneath the chaos of all our making. She would protect us with what amulets she could.
Then she became one of two preps permitted to attend school. She shed tears about “lockdown school”, which felt lonely and confusing. Why wasn’t she home, being protected, if her classmates were? I explained to her that she was safe at lockdown school, and that by attending she was helping us give time to our patients. She was proud to be helping. The teachers took an interest in her, nurtured her. She thrived.
She learned, shocked, that some people did not believe in COVID-19 at all, thought restrictions unnecessary, would not wear a mask, and were angry about being asked. I reached again for an animal metaphor: “Imagine there is a crocodile in the room. Some people might be so frightened, they decide to close their eyes. This helps them feel safer. They might get angry at anyone who tried to tell them about the crocodile because this makes them frightened again.”
She spotted the problem: “I don’t blame them for being scared. But if you close your eyes, the crocodile can still eat you.” (I pocketed this metaphor, making a mental note to dust it off when we encountered the inevitable future conversation about lack of action on climate change.)
An early 2020 piece of schoolwork by Lisa Hounsley’s daughter.
In 2021, vaccines arrived, and the daily existential terror associated with Dad going to work receded. Our heroine returned to full classes, and promptly caught multiple febrile illnesses. It seemed she was always coughing. She stayed home from school, only to catch something else almost immediately on her return. She stayed home from birthday parties. We cancelled a weekend camping trip when she awoke with fever, this one a bitter disappointment. “I didn’t want to tell you, because I knew we wouldn’t go!” she cried. I worried about the ventilation in her charming, century-old public primary school. I shook off my reluctance to be “that parent” and emailed the principal to express my concern. He listened, promised to open windows.
We locked down long in Melbourne for another winter. “How many cases? Linked?” our heroine, now seven years old, would ask over morning toast. The numbers kept rising. I wept with relief at the government announcement of ventilation improvements to be rolled out in our schools. Our heroine was cheered about this, too, understanding that just like Dad’s hospital, her school would clean the air and keep her safe.
Dad was due back to work on the COVID-19 ward, amid skyrocketing case numbers. No booster yet available to him. We decided to send our heroine to live at her grandparents’ house for the month, to avoid the risk of him bringing it home to her. This time, we did not imply that this was all just a big adventure. After all, we can see and acknowledge the crocodile, and so can she. “You have had to go away for work and leave me behind before, but I have never had to leave you,” she solemnly told her Dad. She left him notes and pictures in places she knew he would find them — the instant coffee, the jar of chilli flakes.
When school planned to open, daily case numbers still above 1000, I began to understand the chasms that can exist between policy aspiration and implementation. No air filters in her classroom. No distancing possible — the tables sit four children each. Only two out of 20 classmates intending to wear a mask. We explained to the school and to her – just yet, we would not send her back. We wrestled with our guilt – again, she was an outlier among her peers. After an evening of tears, and rage at our decision, she sighed, and acknowledged, “I can see why. There are heaps of us all in there, breathing the same air.” Despite her pain at missing out, I told myself, she understands.
This month, our heroine’s grandmother developed an autoimmune condition, and commenced on high-dose immunosuppressants. We added her vulnerable state to our concerns.
Vaccines for our children seem tantalisingly close but, we are told, will not arrive this year. Non-vaccine mitigation strategies are still tragically inconsistently implemented in our schools. Now, schools have begun to close all over, clusters spreading within primary schools and extending into their communities. My heroine could tell you why – there are heaps of them all in there, breathing the same air. Our data tells us children aged up to nine now make up the largest proportion of new cases in Victoria, and education clusters are by far the most common.
“Almost always a mild infection in this age group” is the phrase repeatedly used, by paediatricians, journalists and politicians alike. I imagine I can hear the groaning of the heavy lifting that is asked of that little word “almost”. We are encouraged to assume that if our own children fall ill, they will fall on the lucky side of the statistics. We are invited to disregard that in allowing infections to run unchecked, we inevitably increase the numbers of children who don’t – those who become unwell enough to need hospitalisation.
Authorities speak of hospitalised children making a “full recovery”, and we are to presume that admissions leave no psychological traces. Reports of still more rare events – intensive-care admissions of children, multi-system inflammatory syndrome, deaths – remain in the realm of things that, presumably, we imagine can only happen elsewhere. Unchecked infections in this age group also increases the number of children who will be affected by the strange, debilitating syndrome of “long COVID”. We do not know if there are other, more distant health consequences.
Still, we are invited to close our eyes.
Since March 2020, my pandemic heroine has been taught by us, in word and deed, that it is a civic duty to protect the vulnerable. She has done so, to the best of her ability and using all the tools at her disposal – love, sacrifice and sponge shoes. Now, still home from school, she works her way through my efforts at a curriculum. It feels lonely. Each day, an automated text message arrives from the school admin, asking me to account for her absence.
* Lisa Hounsley is not the author’s real name.
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