I Touch My Face A Lot

Mid-January, I connected in Hong Kong on my flight back from the States. Within days there was conversation about coronavirus and within a week our school asked any faculty member or student who traveled to mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau over Lunar New Year to remain off campus for two weeks. When I woke up in the morning I checked the WHO situation report before getting out of bed. Korea held steady at twenty-some cases. I read about quarantined cities in China, and the cruise ships docked and waiting. (For so many reasons I will never take a cruise). Teaching friends who left China for their Lunar holiday resettled in other parts of the world while Covid19 spun through the country’s population. Korea asked universities to push back the start of the spring term, to delay the expected influx of Chinese students.

(Read more about this elsewhere, but East Asia is a tightly connected region – Korea and China have important diplomatic, economic and educational ties. A swift travel ban on all Chinese could have caused long term harm to their relationship).

Each morning I’d lay in bed and read another expert counter the effectiveness of closing borders or scroll through the search results of “south korea coronavirus” before returning to a page listing symptoms of Covid19, reassuring myself that for most people (for eighty percent of those infected!) the illness is akin to its more popular cousin, the common cold. There was comfort knowing that only a minority of those infected experienced serious, hospital-visit-worthy symptoms, and that around two percent of infected people die.

Covid19 favors killing elderly men. I am not an elderly man. But I am the favored age of the 1918 flu, the pandemic that killed my great-great grandmother and her infant son. So I am glad it is not 1918. For weeks I woke up like this, with these thoughts.  

My nose was a little runny. Grant had a cough. At school a student would sneeze or cough and another student might shift in their seat. I wore a mask on the subway. The masks – and we should all know this – are best worn by ill people to catch sprays of fluid. Covid19 lives in snot and spit and can survive on surfaces: so wash your hands. And quit touching your face.

I touch my face a lot. I just touched my face. I may as well lick all the surfaces near me.

The comparisons to SARS and MERS did not help me. SARS and MERS are more deadly coronaviruses, but less contagious. Covid19 spreads through a population quickly, perhaps because its symptoms may be mild and dismissible by eighty percent of us. Or perhaps because the incubation period is two weeks and we may be contagious before exhibiting any symptoms. So I only appreciated the two percent mortality rate of Covid19 for a few days. Then I looked at the tens of thousands infected, the hundreds (now thousands) dying. But how many people are exposed who do not get sick? Millions in a city do not catch the virus, or do not get terribly ill, but we fixate on the hospital lines and empty streets.

Please don’t die, I whispered to my husband one night in bed. Okay, he whispered back.

Monday night I could not sleep. I lay awake at midnight, at one. I sat up and cried. On Monday our school prepared to launch virtual school. All day on campus we learned online platforms to facilitate teaching classes linked by screens. I whispered “fuck.” Not because I am uncertain about manipulating the tech, but because I worried what the shift means to classroom dynamic: what is the dynamic when you are together apart? I am a month into covering a maternity leave and I still mix up a few students’ names. I wondered how to ensure the academic integrity of an in-class essay. How do I teach while parenting my own kids who are home too? So I also whispered “please” because I need help to accept more change.

Teachers and their families started booking flights out of Korea. Justin messaged me about a couple more departing families. I’m fine staying, he texted. Some people worry about the stress Covid19 places on Korea’s medical infrastructure – if you have a small child or baby who needs care, will you be able to see a physician easily or safely? Some people worry about home country borders closing or quarantine times. I understand the decision to leave Korea.

But I am also fine staying. When the SARS and MERS comparisons were no longer reassuring to me I thought about how viruses just do this to a population. Covid19 will carry on and we might get ill. The unlikely could happen too. On Monday I was more overwhelmed by the change to our daily routine.

Our school is on a synchronous schedule which means I see my students during our usual class time. So I am trying to do what we’d do in class. It takes more time to share content or generate discussion because we aren’t physically present to read cues. Today I let a few long pauses sit until a student filled the gap. This will work!

But while I am teaching and Justin is EdTeching (and teaching) we have two kids who are doing school. Claire is on the same synchronous schedule as me and has set up a camp (lair) under her loft bed. Twinkle lights, lots of pillows and blankets, and one hot laptop. During a lull in my work I peak into her room. On the first day the novelty of being allowed unfettered screen time for eight hours was a marvel and she balanced her device on the kitchen counter while cutting an apple at lunchtime, laughed at something her friend chatted. She is occupied by her teachers and classmates, all of them meeting virtually each block.

But Grant is free range. Or neglected. We have to figure out how to do Grant’s school, I said to Justin this morning. Yes, he said. Next week, I said.

In the morning Grant shows me his Google Classroom posts. The kid has quite the schedule, all of the tasks connected to a pdf or video or doc. Yesterday I thought a change of venue might be nice so he and I headed to a favorite café after lunch. While I taught two classes he sat glassy eyed, hunched over his device at a nearby table. I checked in with him a couple of times. Did you watch the video about student-led conferences? Can you listen to the read aloud? How about writing? You can do math when Papa gets home. And then I gave up because I had grading and planning to do and I am not a person who thrives on doing more than one thing at a time. I don’t feel efficient or accomplished or #hustle when I whack-a-mole life.

This morning I did not check the WHO situation report. Last night at eleven an emergency alert interrupted my sleep to tell me via Google Translate that a man with coronavirus had visited our neighborhood. I touch my face a lot. More families are flying out. Justin texted me: I’m fine staying. We are fine staying.

This afternoon I biked to run class from Shinsegae. I asked my advisory students to give high/ lows of the week. More sleep is a high. No morning or afternoon commute is a high. Autonomy is a high. My latte from Baekmidang is a high. Where are you Ms. Marslender? one of them asked. Most students are sequestered in their bedrooms. I walk ten steps a day, a sophomore told us. I tell the group to try yoga, if you can’t leave the apartment.

I started yoga at the end of December. I wake up and move my body through an hour of held poses. My feet are stronger. My left side is finding its balance again. When coronavirus headlines began showing at the top of a scroll, I told my kids to wash hands, drink water, sleep. The idea that if we keep our body well, our body has a better chance at resisting Covid19. I quit thinking about this during yoga. I am quiet. I breathe. I go through the poses and wonder if I could live in our apartment for a month. I make a note to buy more soap and pick up dishwasher tabs. Outside today the air is clean, the sky unseasonably colored.


WHO COVID-2019 Situation Reports
Reuters Graphics: “The Korean Clusters”
“Why the Coronavirus Seems to Hit Men Harder Than Women”
Baekmidang coffee is a definite high

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