I live in Paris. Here’s what I want everyone back home to know about coronavirus.
We’re just weeks ahead of America. Here’s how fast everything changes.
A Strange Bonjour
Bonjour from Paris, where a bizarre new reality has taken hold, just as it has in the United States. No parties these days, of course, and no la bise. I did attend a party 14 days ago. One of the couples with whom I talked and exchanged la bise is now self-quarantined at home with Covid19 symptoms. I almost didn’t go to that party. At 9:30 that night, I was still telling myself, “Bad idea to go to the party.” But we were in the early stages of the virus in Paris, and none of us wanted to believe it was coming for us. The World Health Organization was still eleven days away from calling it a pandemic. It seemed socially awkward not to go, and I wanted to see my friends and drink champagne, so I put on my party dress and got on the metro.
The party included a lot of parents from my son’s school. Due to the timing, I believe the couple contracted the illness after the party, but their sickness is a reminder how quickly everything goes from normal to not-normal, how rapidly we have to realign how we interact and go about our daily lives. They were both feeling perfectly fine two days ago, and then she noticed a little scratch at the back of her throat yesterday morning. Later in the morning, she had a fever. Soon thereafter, the fever was much higher. For her husband, it began with tiredness that quickly progressed to fever. It happens fast. So fast. You’re fine, and then you’re not.
Chances are, you already know someone who has coronavirus. If you don’t already, you will soon — probably within days. Whether or not they’ll have access to testing is, of course, another story.
In Paris, as in America, it’s very difficult to get tested. The problem here isn’t a lack of tests so much as a lack of capacity. With packed hospitals and strained health care workers, the medical system is focusing on the critically ill, asking everyone who doesn’t have severe symptoms to stay home. Only a day ago, only the sick were supposed to self-isolate. How quickly that has changed.
In the past couple of weeks, I posted three times on the blog. Between Feb. 27 and March 9, while confirmed cases rose, the mood and everyday activity of Paris changed little. Between March 9 and March 13, the numbers of confirmed infections and deaths skyrocketed, but the public response didn’t catch up with reality. Thursday night, Macron finally announced the closure of the schools. Friday morning, I awoke to the headline, “All Travel from Europe Banned.” Not normal happens fast.
Here are my posts from the last couple of weeks on The Reluctant Parisian, tracing the mood of the city as reality crept in
March 12: Waking Up in Paris to a Travel Ban (and why is there still a salad bar at the Monoprix?)
Why I kept my son home before the schools officially closed (and why you should too, if you can)
Several of my son’s friends’ schools back home in the Bay Area closed early, when there were far fewer reported cases in all of America than in the Paris region. This includes Catholic and private schools in San Francisco and on the Peninsula. Even if it seemed annoying or unnecessary to parents at the time, even if it presented significant scheduling issues, early school closures are one of the most effective ways to slow the spread.
My son’s school was open last week, but the last day I sent him to school was Tuesday. From everything I was reading, the risk of being on the metro and in classrooms was too great. You don’t know intimacy until you’ve ridden the Paris metro, where the distance between your body and other bodies is zero centimeters, and the distance between your mouth and other people’s mouths is four to six inches. On Thursday, the school held an assembly, packing 90 kids into a poorly ventilated room. Earlier in the week (Monday), the kids had done yoga, and the teacher had instructed them to press their faces into the dirty mats that had just been used by other students. When the school nurse visited my son’s class to talk to them about coronavirus, she told them they only needed to wash their hands for 10 seconds. The urgency and the common sense just wasn’t there.
When I wrote on our 9th grade WhatsApp group that I’d pulled our son out of school, I discovered that some families wanted to do the same, but without any direction from the school, many felt uncomfortable doing so. Forgive the bold type, but I feel passionately about this: you don’t need permission from the school to keep your kids home during a pandemic. You’re the parent. It’s your choice.
The Are-We-in-A-Movie Moment
On Thursday night, in a sobering address to the nation, President Macron finally announced that all schools will be closed beginning Monday. Spring break starts in two to three weeks, which means schools will be shuttered for more than a month, allowing France to slow the spread at a crucial time. My son’s school is going online. The kids are still expected to “attend” school every day. They’ll still learn; they’ll just learn differently.
If you have children in schools that are still open, please consider keeping them home if this is a possibility for your family. If you can work from home, do. When communities speed up social distancing by even a single day, it can have an enormous impact on how fast, and how widely, the virus spreads. A few days of missed school and unexcused absences is so minor compared to the uncertainty of the virus entering your home. While children have fortunately fared well so far, they can spread the virus without having any symptoms at all. Many healthy adults in their 30s, 40s, and 50s have developed critical complications. In Paris, as of March 14th, there were 300 people in critical condition in Paris hospitals. Half of those critical cases are under the age of 60. Don’t believe the narrative that only the elderly, or those with pre-existing conditions, will die.
My husband is still going to work, of course, because the federal government must keep functioning. I worry about him every day, as there was already a confirmed case in his workplace last week. Although he needs to see a doctor for a non-virus health concern, doctors and institutions here and at home are overwhelmed, and besides, it’s not a great time to go to the doctor if you can avoid it. This is another reason social distancing is so important. You’re not just trying to protect your family from this virus, but also from any other condition that, in normal times, would warrant a trip to the ER or to the doctor.
For many families, it’s difficult to skip the playdates and the playground, the parties and other social gatherings. It’s difficult to cancel the event you’ve been planning, the venue you’ve paid for, your child’s birthday party, the trip you’ve been dreaming of for months or years. It’s difficult to disappoint, but on the other hand: whoever is attending your event will probably be relieved not to have to make the decision. I had two literary events scheduled for this month. I was looking forward to both of them, but I was relieved when they were canceled. Your guests will be relieved too.
It is far better to be safe and socially awkward, safe and bored, safe and suffering from cabin fever, than to engage in risky behavior and come down with an actual fever.
For young professionals, it’s difficult not to meet up with friends. For everyone, it’s difficult not to go to your favorite bookstore or place of worship or grab a coffee or baguette or takeout. Social distancing is anathema to our way of life, but what we know now is that serious, unusual, even painful social distancing is essential. It is far better to be safe and socially awkward, safe and bored, safe and suffering from cabin fever, than to engage in risky behavior and come down with an actual fever. Right now, so much of what we’re accustomed to doing every day is risky.
Remember what they told you in health class circa 1988.
If you’re my age, remember your AIDS education from the 80s: “When you sleep with someone, you’re sleeping with everyone they slept with.” These days, when you shake hands with someone, you’re shaking hands or hugging everyone they’ve shaken hands with since they last scrubbed their hands. Even more concerning, the virus can last a few days on surfaces, so when you touch the metro pole or the Philz Coffee counter, you’re touching everyone who’s touched those surfaces. Take your hand sanitizer with you when you go grocery shopping, so you can clean your hands immediately after leaving the store. Disinfect your phone in the car or when you get home. Use credit cards rather than cash, so that you’re not touching money that has changed hands, and disinfect your credit card after you use it. If these measures seem drastic, they are. The pandemic is drastic too.
Lean in to the unprecedented gift of dedicated family time.
The one positive of this world-altering ordeal is that we’re all going to be spending a lot more dedicated time with our immediate families. When was the last time you got to hang out with your school-aged kids without the pressures of sports, recitals, extra-curricular activities, playdates, school events, and volunteer functions? Whether you’re a family with kids at home or a couple, when was the last time you were just home together, with no events on the calendar, watching movies and playing board games and talking? When was the last weekday you woke up and made pancakes and sat around together for breakfast? If you live alone, when was the last time you stayed in every day, working without distraction, reading, writing, listening to music, and, okay, catching up on Homeland?
Sure, there’s still schoolwork, and there’s still work. For those who are able to be home with our kids right now, there’s no forcing your kid out of bed early in the morning to get dressed for school. There’s no rushing to the train or the metro or piling kids into the car. No lunchboxes to pack. There’s no coordinating different kids’ schedules, figuring out who has to be where, and when, which parent will do what, who’s driving, who’s meeting whom, etc.. This is a tremendous gift, even if it comes at a cost. It has never before happened in my life as a parent. Probably not in yours, either.
Of course, many families will not have these luxuries. For millions of families, there will be new and complicated burdens — those with health care workers in the family, those with no adult to stay home with the children, those with differently abled children who depend upon the school environment and teachers, those who are facing food shortages, devastating loss of income, medical deprivation, and other catastrophic situations. And those who lose loved ones to the virus.
These are such complicated issues, I think all of us are waiting to see how our governments and communities will respond. One thing has become clear in the last few weeks: We need to listen to experts and scientists before a crisis happens. We desperately need a well-oiled, well-funded federal government that can respond robustly and rapidly in emergency situations. Those who denigrate federal workers and institutions, minimizing the crucial work they do for our country every day, cheering on the dismantling of the necessary systems, are now discovering like never before how much they need those workers and institutions. Underfunded, understaffed institutions threaten the welfare of every citizen.
Dreaming of California
I think longingly of our home in Northern California, surrounded by trees and beauty, with the long walk down the back stairs to the wooded canyon, where the big deer like to hang out. To wait out the isolation there, instead of in a cramped Paris apartment with our disco-playing, clog-wearing, house-renovating upstairs neighbors, would be a dream. That said, our family wants to stay together, and my husband has a job to do. So we’ll be here in Paris, waiting it out.
Fortunately, there are books. There is music. There is Monopoly and backgammon and Risk. Oh, and Netflix. Soooo much Netflix. And you can still walk outside and notice beauty. The weather is lovely in Paris right now, the cherry blossoms (or some kind of blossoms) blooming. I go to the park near our apartment in the morning, before the crowds, and look at everything in bloom. It soothes the soul. It gives me hope. It offers consistency, normalcy, and calm.
May you find your cherry blossoms wherever you are. May you enjoy your newly intensified time with your people, your pets, with the ones you love the most. May you make something, read something, remember something that has been buried beneath the busy-ness.
Eventually, we’ll be walking the halls of the schools and universities and offices again, seeing friends, grabbing a coffee that’s better than the coffee we make at home, eating a pizza that came out of an actual brick oven, giving la bise and hugging and shaking hands, watching movies on the big screen instead of living a scary end-of-the-world movie in which we’re all unwitting extras. We’ll be sending our kids out into the world to play their sports and hang out with their tribes. We’ll be back in the busy thick of it, remembering our strange hibernations, the weird solitude and surrender to a life-changing spectacle that gripped the entire world.
Until then, be safe and well….
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