SINGAPORE: Over the past week or so, the spotlight shifted very quickly from Chinese New Year festivities to the deadly coronavirus.
As a parent with three kids in primary school, I couldn’t help but feel on the edge as the day to return to school post-CNY drew near.
News about the compulsory leave of absence (LOA) for teachers and students returning from China helped settle the jitters somewhat but did not remove it completely.
I was also in a dilemma. As my second child was still recovering from a flu bug, I wasn’t entirely sure whether he was well enough to return to school. In the end, I kept all three at home on the first day.
To be absolutely honest, I’m not sure if it was more responsible parenting or paranoia driving that decision.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was gripped by fear, as a few of my daughter’s classmates were absent on that day too. But when she begged to go to school the next day, I relented.
What kind of message would I be sending my kids if I allowed fear to steer my every course?
FEAR IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
In the movie Inside Out, we get an insider perspective of what goes on in the emotional world of Riley, the main character of the show. It was fascinating to watch how each of her five basic emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger — took control at the console of her mind.
In today’s virus-warped world, it is apparent that Fear is in the driver’s seat.
This is the primary emotion that is causing people to grab and hoard masks, despite the government’s call to use them responsibly and only when feeling unwell.
It is the emotion driving restaurant owners in Korea to put up signs saying “no Chinese allowed”.
It is also the emotion that is causing us to think twice about sending our children to school.
Now it is perfectly normal to be fearful, given that there are a lot of unknowns about this virus: When it is contagious — upon infection or post-symptom, how it is transmitted, who are most at risk, and how long it will take to die down.
The accelerating pace of the virus spread in China and around the world is also making it hard to get a handle on the situation.
As parents, we worry that the situation will turn south very quickly, and we don’t want to see our offspring suffering needlessly.
So we pull out all the stops to ensure their safety, whether it is by keeping them home, driving them to and from school, skipping unnecessary events, or getting them masks.
More than a week back, many of us also called on the Government to take action and prevent Hubei nationals and travellers from entering Singapore when the situation took a turn for the worse, a move that was eventually made.
But the question remains: How much is safe enough?
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And for a parent, is school okay but not tuition and enrichment activities? How long can we maintain this state of hyper-vigilance?
Last Thursday, I brought my boys for their usual badminton lessons and we practically had the entire hall to ourselves.
We all hope that the virus will disappear in weeks, and that it will neither run the months-long course as SARS nor come anywhere close to the impact it had.
But one thing seems certain: We have not seen the peak yet, and the number of infected cases around the world is going to rise. Elsewhere including the US, community spread has already occurred.
Experts are saying the virus may continue for the next few months given how fast it’s been spreading.
KEEPING ANXIETY IN CHECK
My WhatsApp chat groups have been buzzing with information shared by parents on how to protect ourselves and where to get masks, sanitisers and anti-bacterial wipes.
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While mostly useful, it also induces anxiety. The past week, I’ve noticed moments when I felt harried and breathless, and I think it could be my body’s stress response.
In the first few days of the newsbreak, I also found myself using negative terms such as “your immunity will be weak” or “the virus will make you very sick” in a bid to scare them into washing their hands properly before meals.
I’ve since tried to be more measured in my word choices, so as not to create greater anxiety in my kids, using a more positive tone such as “let’s keep ourselves healthy during this period”.
It may seem small in the scheme of things but this is the time to exercise leadership and role-modelling as parents. Part of this is to avoid stressing our kids out unduly.
LEARNING FROM THE JAPANESE
When a perceived threat is imminent and unknown, we will all experience a period of heightened fear and irrational behaviour.
Because of the scarcity of masks or other health-related goods, people start to eye one another suspiciously. Every sneeze or slight clearing of throat is enough to get you stares on public transport.
Caution is certainly needed but we may need time to adjust and allow other healthier emotions to take their rightful place at the wheel, perhaps those of perseverance, hope and level-headedness.
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In this regard, we could learn from the Japanese. Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world. Children there are taught earthquake survival skills early on in their lives.
Schools run regular earthquake drills, educating kids on the best way to stay safe during an earthquake.
One common strategy taught is for children to get under their desks and hold onto their table legs until the trembling is over. If playing outside, children are taught to go to the centre of an open space to avoid falling objects.
Since we will need time to bring the virus to heel, we should instill good hygiene habits in our young.
From washing hands properly, to practising good cough etiquette by covering your mouth or using a mask, and handling and disposing masks carefully — if we train them up well in these areas, as a society we will enjoy stronger defences against the coronavirus and future viruses as well.
Along with staying home if one is ill instead of heading out, these are good habits we should instill in our children irrespective of news of this pandemic.
A PARENT’S WISH LIST
When I picked the kids up after school last week, I asked if their teachers had encouraged them to wash their hands, or given them more water breaks to hydrate their bodies.
I was a tad disappointed to hear that there were no such exhortations.
Granted, even if the teachers instruct, kids being kids, some may not take these seriously and just do a cursory wash. So parents cannot abdicate our responsibility in drilling our kids.
Given the potential danger a community spread in schools could cause, I think more can be done in the area of educating our children on hygiene and viral protection.
Experts have emphasised that this battle will not be won on the back of masks or sanitisers, but one’s level of personal hygiene.
Dr Leong Hoe Nam, Infectious Disease Specialist humorously shared his golden rule in a radio interview: “Don’t touch your face. Your face is sacred.”
I told this to my children and they laughed; I certainly hope it makes the message stick.
I think schools have done well thus far in keeping parents abreast of the latest protective measures.
Apart from daily temperature taking and implementing the LOA, they can also consider using curriculum time set aside for Health Education or PAL (Programme for Active Learning) to inculcate healthy hygiene habits.
After all, real-life experiences, even crises, are often where textbook lessons can be brought to life
THE CHOICES WE EXERCISE
We do not know how this pandemic will pan out, but we can control our thoughts and choices today.
By all means, take the necessary precautions but in order to emerge unscathed through this crisis, we need to balance fear with equal doses of calm, wit and trust.
By practising good hygiene habits as a family, we can go about our daily lives like the Japanese children, with hope and optimism while constantly vigilant for the next alarm.
If we manage ourselves well, this crisis could turn out to be an opportunity for us and our children to learn a kind of resilience that could shelter Singapore for years to come — no matter what virus mutations come our way.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.