Coping with the coronavirus: Information for the science-minded parent

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved


The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was unknown to science until late last year.  By mid March, life has changed dramatically for people throughout the world.

Our daily routines have been upended. We're worried about making ends meet, preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, keeping safe, and protecting the most vulnerable among us.

And if we're parents, everything is intensified.

  • We have more to do -- more mouths to feed, more family members to manage, more conflicts to juggle.
  • We have to deal with new hardships as school and daycare centers close.
  • We also have the added psychological strain that comes with being a parent.

So I'm writing a new set of articles for Parenting Science -- posts aimed at helping us cope with these difficult and worrying times.

And to begin? I want to start with basics -- crucial messages we need to share with our friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

1.  We need to "flatten the curve" -- slow down the rate of infection so our hospitals don't get overburdened. 

Most people who contract this virus won't experience severe symptoms. But some people are going to become critically ill and require hospitalization. If too many need help at once, they will overwhelm the medical system.

Hospitals will run out of beds. There won't be enough respirators to meet demand. There won't be enough specialized health care workers to provide care.

That's what will happen if we do nothing to slow the spread of the disease. It's illustrated by the red curve below -- a rapid spike in the number of people infected -- exceeding the capacity of the health care system.

By contrast, look at the yellow curve. It shows what will happen if we can seriously slow down the rate of transmission. Lots of people eventually become infected. But it happens much more gradually, so we avoid crashing the system.

Graph the illustrates the effects of flattening the curve during the coronavirus outbreak - by Johannes Kalliauer

Epidemiologists say we can "flatten the curve" in this way -- but it will require that we do more than wash our hands frequently, or use sanitizer.

We'll need to get serious about social distancing: keeping away from crowded spaces, avoiding social gatherings, and (when possible) maintaining a distance of least 6 feet from other people.

And it goes without saying -- stay home if you are showing signs of COVID-19. 

NPR has published this guide to symptoms, along with advice about when to consult your doctor. But keep my next point in mind (#2 below).

2. You can have COVID-19 and never experience a cough or fever. Indeed, you might be infectious right now and not realize it. 

We're often told to watch out for "a dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath." 

But in the World Health Organization's analysis of coronavirus cases in China, people didn't always experience these symptoms. 

About 88% of confirmed cases had a fever, and 68% had a dry cough. Only about 19% experienced shortness of breath (WHO 2019). 

Other "typical signs and symptoms" included

  • fatigue (38%)
  • a productive cough (33%)
  • muscle or joint aches (15%)
  • sore throat (14%)
  • headache (14%)
  • chills (11%)
  • nausea or vomiting (5%)

And many people may not experience any symptoms -- not during the first few days after contracting the virus.

The takeaway? If we're serious about flattening the curve -- and protecting vulnerable people in our communities -- we should err on the side of caution. 

3. Kids can get it too.

As I explain in this article, most children with laboratory-confirmed infections have experienced mild-to-moderate symptoms. And substantial portion of these children experienced pneumonia. 

4. The number of reported cases can be misleading.

The  true spread of the virus greatly exceeds the official tallies of confirmed cases.  

That's partly because testing has been so limited, especially in the United States. But it's also because it takes 5-6 days for an infected person to become symptomatic, and people aren't usually tested until they become symptomatic. Cases diagnosed today reflect events that happened last week...or even earlier.

So if your local health authority is reporting (for example) 30 cases, it's likely that many more people in your community are currently infected. And we should expect to see the numbers climb -- even after we've begun social distancing.

Sal Khan of Khan Academy has released this excellent video explaining how this works -- and why it's so crucial that we come together to slow the spread of the virus. 

5. You should stay at home if you can.

When you stay at home, you help reduce transmission of the virus. Those people who must continue to work in public spaces will have more room to spread out, making transmission less likely.

6. Stuck at home with the kids, and feeling inadequate? Go easy on yourself.

Here are my thoughts on how to cope.

7. Don't feel helpless either. Lots of people need our support. Let's lend a hand, and pressure government officials to act.

This is the time to work together -- to protect vulnerable community members, help families in financial crisis, and support everyone on the front lines. Here are some of the people who need our support.

  • Medical workers need adequate protective gear. As schools close, they also need child care for their kids. 
  • People in high-risk groups (like the elderly, and those with pre-existing¬†medical conditions) need deliveries, medications, and groceries.
  • Record numbers of people are losing work, and they are about to run out of the money they need to pay for the bare necessities. Hourly workers are being laid off. Gig workers, freelancers, and small business owners are facing financial ruin.
  • Low income families need help in the wake of school closures. They are scrambling to find child care. And they need help with food. Many were depending on schools to provide their kids with free or subsidized meals during the day. 
  • Many people lack crucial health benefits. For instance, many Americans lack paid sick leave. They have high deductible health insurance plans, and can't afford to pay out of pocket for medical care.

Find out what's happening in your local community, and see what you can do to pitch in. And put pressure on government officials to provide crucial financial support to people in need.

It's easy to understand why so many people are in trouble. They weren't financially secure in the first place.

Nearly 40% of American adults lacked the savings to cover an unexpected, $400 expense (U.S. Federal Reserve Board 2019). More than half the population was living paycheck to paycheck, and most small businesses had very low cash reserves -- only enough to get them through a month and a half without income.

Want to blame the victims? Argue that people should have saved more money in anticipation of a crisis? Some policymakers and pundits may want to try, but good luck with that.

The United States has the highest level of income inequality among all affluent countries. The top 1% of households own more wealth than the bottom 90% of households combined (U.S. Federal Reserve 2020).

And lots of people have been working hard -- doing work that society requires to function -- but getting paid too little to achieve financial security.

For example, the years leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, approximately 42% of American workers -- including cashiers, nursing assistants, janitors, warehouse workers, child care workers, and construction laborers -- were making less than $15.00 per hour (Tung et al 2015).

So let's stop the income-shaming, and prevent a huge portion of the population from sinking into poverty. 


References: Coping with the coronavirus

Board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. 2019. Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018. Can be downloaded from this link: https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/2018-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201905.pdf

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, United States. 2020. "Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989" Table last updated March 20, 2020. Accessed 3/25/2020 from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/table/

Tung I, Lathrop Y, and Soon P. 2015. The growing movement for $15. National Employment Law Project.

World Health Organization. 2020. Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Downloaded 3/16/20 from https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/who-china-joint-mission-on-covid-19-final-report.pdf

Image credits:

Image of coronavirus by the Center for Disease Control (public domain)

Graph of flattening the curve by Johannes Kalliauer 

Content last modified 3/25/2020


Copyright © 2006-2020 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.