My mother was planning to go and visit our 95-year-old cousin Ursula, having missed her birthday lunch a few days previously. In the meantime I spoke to my brother, who said “Is Mom still convinced that the world is going mad?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I think that’s a dangerous attitude to take,” he said, “especially since she is one of the people the virus would particularly enjoy.”
He said he was planning to come and visit us the following evening, but given that two people at his gym had tested positive and he had had a friend from China staying with him, he had decided not to come after all.
When I passed the message on to Mom, she rolled her eyes and said “Why did he feel the need to relay that through you rather than telling me himself?”
She made some other sarcastic comment implying that he was overreacting, to which I said “He’s trying to protect you! This virus is dangerous and he’s right that you should be careful!”
The next day she told me that she had spoken to Ursula and cancelled the visit “after you assaulted me”.
“I didn’t assault you!” I said. “I was trying to protect you and Ursula!”
She spent a few days being a bit crabby, but I realised that the crabbiness was actually despondency. She suffers badly from SAD, and now, just as winter was coming to an end and she might look forward to starting to feel a bit better, the world was shutting down around her.
She phoned Ursula to say that my brother and I had “forbidden” her from going to visit, and Ursula was crestfallen.
“But I’ve bought a chocolate cake!” she said. “And my cleaner has cancelled her visit this week. And the friend I play scrabble with has also cancelled. And if you don’t come and my cleaner doesn’t come and my friend doesn’t come then I won’t see anyone all week.”
Mom decided that she should go and visit after all, but she took the precaution of phoning Ursula’s son to ask his blessing, which he gave. So Mom phoned Ursula to announce that she was reinstating the visit, only to be told that Ursula’s other son had just phoned her and forbidden her from having contact with anyone.
“And you see, this is what I think is one of the dangers of mass panic,” she told me. “People like Ursula will go for days and weeks without seeing anyone and will develop anxiety and depression.”
A couple of times she went to a little Turkish grocery shop around the corner and came back saying breezily “Well, the nice thing about that shop is that everything feels completely normal.”
I appreciated having her voice in my ear as a counterbalance to the apocalyptic rhetoric I was hearing elsewhere, but I wondered if she was planting her anti-hysteria flag a bit too firmly and refusing to see the risk.
“Do you acknowledge that the virus is dangerous?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said, “but I’m just sick of the fact that that’s all anyone talks about. I try to read the news and that’s all there is on the news. It’s as if nothing else is happening in the world! And I think the world needs people like me who will say out loud that we need to stay sane and keep society functioning.”
I have just checked with my mother that she is happy for me to write about her reactions to the coronavirus situation, including when I don’t share her views. She said it’s fine by her.
“But also put it on record,” she said, “that I haven’t so much as stepped out of the house in one, two, three….. eleven days.”