Coronavirus: Notes from the Field

It’s Sunday night and instead of doing a menu plan for the week, organizing my work purse to grab in the morning, and remembering to tally up the money I owe for the kids’ Read-a-Thon because I’m fairly sure it is overdue at school, I’m trying to decide if it’s time to start panicking.

Not really, of course: panic helps no one.  But I am trying to decide how much “social isolation” to do in a country where we don’t yet have our first confirmed case of COVID-19.

Botswana is a small, landlocked country with a population of 2.2 million. We are far away from the U.S., China, and Europe: tucked away close to the bottom edge of southern Africa, and unless you are talking diamond mines or the Okavango Delta, the country flies a fairly low international profile.  The country has also imposed a 14-day home quarantine on all visitors who arrived from affected countries recently, in an attempt to delay the spread of the infection here.  As of today, there are no confirmed cases in the country.

But as we have seen in country after country throughout the world, just screening at the borders alone doesn’t ensure corona stays out, since people can be infected and spread the illness before they even appear sick.  I’m pleased Botswana is checking everyone’s temperature at the border, but that doesn’t guarantee the infection isn’t here already and we just don’t know about it, or that it won’t be here soon.  Just this weekend, our neighbor Nambia (just kidding, Namibia) reported its first case, and our other close neighbor South Africa has 61 cases as of today.

I kept the kids home from school on Friday and then spent the weekend plotting our next move.  I am a natural hoarder at heart so I already stocked up the pantry two weeks ago, when shelf-stable staples and toilet paper were still bulging on every shelf (to be fair, they still are: Botswana hasn’t yet seen a run on groceries).  So I had plenty of time to read, and research, and then read and research some more.  And it slowly became clear what our advantage is here in Botswana.

We have the advantage of watching many other countries go first.  We know what happens when everyone gets sick at once and the hospitals are overwhelmed.  We know that infection entering a country through travelers eventually infects others in the community.  We know that about 20% of people who catch COVID-19 may need hospitalization, and 5% of those may need intensive measures.

A friend and infectious disease specialist living in Botswana told me the optimal time to close the schools would be two days before the first reported case in the country.  But without a Magic 8-Ball, how on earth can we know what day that is?  We can’t.  It could be tomorrow or it could be two weeks from now.  So I’m choosing to “overreact,” make the call as early as possible, to avoid being too late.  The disease is mild in kids: but it is feared that our darling petri dishes are still able to transmit quite well. They are also the least able to always wash their hands perfectly, stop picking their noses, and avoid sneezing on each other and their teachers.

A shelf with school supplies

My home school shelf is ready.

So here we are, ready to slow it all down.  I have the privilege to be able to stay home from work, do some deep-cleaning projects I have put off for six years, stop checking Facebook coronavirus updates so much, and finally get the kids to do chores (a girl can dream).  I will pretend I am not nervous about the number of ventilators in the country, the fact that most food items are imported from South Africa, and that I will have sole responsibility for my children’s education for the near-term.  I have a feeling it will be my most daunting education challenge to date, which is saying something since I have experience teaching not only inner-city high schoolers but the true challenge of Harvard students accustomed to grade inflation.

I will also encourage everyone I know to start social distancing as of today: emails instead of meetings, yoga apps instead of group classes,  walks outside instead of playdates at the crowded trampoline center.  My kids and I will bake bread from scratch, spend a lot of time in the pool, and continue reading Little House on the Prairie so that I can retort “Laura and Mary wouldn’t complain about that!” every time I hear whining about wanting to go to Bounceland instead of spending the next [??] weeks mostly at home.

And, of course, I will put all the Read-A-Thon money in an envelope so I can still drop it off at school.  Life does, hopefully, go on.

What are your plans to social distance?

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