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How I'm Teaching My Kids Not To Fear Everything During A Pandemic

The author's two children at a South African beach.
Koketso Moeti
The author's two children at a South African beach.

The other day, while my children and I were playing outside, the ball we were throwing accidentally flew out of the yard. Under normal circumstances, I would have opened the gate, and we'd race to see who would get it first. But these aren't normal circumstances.

In South Africa, where we live, a suspected case of COVID-19 was confirmed to have tested positive on March 5. Exactly three weeks later, the country was put under one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Schools, places of worship and all businesses deemed not essential were closed. Hot prepared food, alcohol and tobacco sales were banned. Even outdoor exercise was prohibited.

The abruptness with which physical connection became a threat was dizzying. As these restrictions are eased — and infection rates and deaths rise — I find myself needing to teach my children how to interact with our community in a way that is safe but still loving.

So back to retrieving that ball. Our street, in an area not too far from Johannesburg's city center, is usually busy because it leads to a shopping area for groceries and other essentials. Given the number of people walking by, I went to get a mask and gloves to venture beyond the gate.

But before I could go into the house, an old man with a beret and a walking cane scooped it off the street and brought it to the gate. Just as the kids started running toward him to get it, I called out to them to stop. I graciously thanked the man and asked him to please just throw it through the gate. I couldn't really tell his reaction to this, because he had a makeshift mask on. Again, the children started to run to get the ball, so I stopped them and asked them to bring me gloves and soap.

I put on the gloves, picked up the ball and gave it a good scrub. The kids — my 8 year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, told me that the man was just being nice and were clearly displeased with my behavior. I then reminded them of what's going on and why what I was doing was necessary. (I am well aware that it will not be possible to keep my children at home forever, so sometimes I go over the top in an attempt to model the behaviors they now have to adopt to keep themselves and others safe.)

My 10-year-old asked how long we are going to live like this. I shrugged and said I don't know as I left the ball to dry. Despite her slight frown, she got another one and we continued playing.

My children are deeply loving and social. My daughter's unhappiness reminded me how much they are struggling with the current situation.

As much as I want to ensure that my children protect themselves and others, this forced me to reflect quite deeply on how I can do so in a way that does not inadvertently teach them to treat people as a threat. And in the face of an invisible virus, it is very easy to see people as the problem and retreat into personal cocoons.

This is especially tempting in South Africa, one of the most unequal countries in the world. I am a Black South African. Our household is fortunate to have the means to stay connected to our loved ones, to work and shop from home. That has made lockdown much more comfortable for us than for the majority of the country.

But for most Black South Africans, the current crisis has amplified already existing inequalities, leading to increased hunger, accelerated income losses and dangerous working conditions. There's an urge to slip into self-preservation mode and ignore other people's suffering. But, now more than ever, we should feel compelled to connect with the many struggles happening all around us, and collectively build a just, equitable and loving society.

Thankfully, my children appreciate the importance of relationships, which are really the foundation of our family. They feel safe, cared for and loved because of the many people in our community that have been involved in raising them, shaping their values and sense of self in the world.

Despite being isolated, we haven't been alone. We have woken up to find oranges, Easter eggs, papaya and biscuits delivered to our gate from friends who live nearby. And from our wider community of friends, the children regularly receive loving messages and calls.

Our avocado tree produces more than we can eat, and because I can no longer share the bounty at my office, the kids decided to start packing up the fruit to leave outside for people passing by to take. Because they both have underlying health conditions that have required past hospitalizations — severe chronic rhinitis, eczema and allergies — I kept them home before the lockdown even started. So I suspect it is their way of reaching out to others despite not venturing beyond the yard for almost three months now. It has been fulfilling to see how much joy they get from this.

I don't want my children to only remember to wear masks, wash their hands and keep their distance from people. I want them to understand that this is a time when people need to show up for one another. So in the same way I talk about how physical connection is a threat, I need to be as deliberate about elevating stories of how, beyond our small part of the world, people are helping each other out.

I have told them about the Community Action Networks in Cape Town, which have brought unlikely groups of people together across class lines through WhatsApp groups, which convey local needs and stop the spread of misinformation. This is particularly critical as the government's already inadequate relief measures continue to fail to reach those who need them most. We've discussed the women of "Londani Lushaka," an organization based in Alexandra, a township in South Africa, who with the help of volunteers and donated food are feeding up to 600 children on a daily basis.

And they know that in various cities around the world, thousands have risked infection to take to the streets to protest the state violence inflicted on black people not only in the United States but in their own respective countries.

What I want my children to take away from this moment is that it's possible to forge new bonds in the middle of a global pandemic. Yes, sometimes we need to be careful about retrieving a ball. But connections to other people remain crucial — if not more important.

Koketso Moeti is a civic activist who over the years has worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. In 2019 she was named an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity. She is also an inaugural Obama Foundation fellow and an Aspen New Voices Senior Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @Kmoeti

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Koketso Moeti