I’m telling my kids the truth about coronavirus – just like my parents did for me when we fled Iran

Shappi Khorsandi
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Yesterday, I was in hospital for a minor procedure and my hands are red raw from squishing hand sanitiser on my hands every three minutes.

Nurses were worried about schools shutting because they would not be able to get into work. I’m worried that schools haven't been shut because although the virus is sparing healthy children, they DO have a habit of jumping all over grandparents and breathing all over everything.

I have a friend whose husband is only 38 but has lung cancer. She is worried that the decisions made by the government accept that people who are as vulnerable as he is are not regarded as valuable and so there is disregard for protecting them.

In short, everyone is worried and don’t get me started on dating.

I went on a date with a chap two weeks ago, we had a snog, and now I’m texting him daily, casually asking him at 6am every morning "ARE YOU COUGHING AT ALL?" It’s very romantic. I think soon we will be in the "he’s blocked my number" stage of our courtship.

Another operation I was due to have in April on the NHS was cancelled suddenly, with no explanation other than "sorreeeee! We’ll be in touch again when we can!" I read it as "we are going to need every spare inch we have in April so your routine op can wait! Ciao!" which of course is fair enough. I am cheerily trying not to panic because panic attacks are not medically proven to kill viruses and more importantly, I do not want my children to know how worried I am.

They are 12 and six. The 12-year-old is a science fanatic and was the first person to tell me about the "coronavirus in China" back in those halcyon days a few weeks ago when if someone coughed in your face on the tube you didn’t immediately want them arrested for attempted murder.

My six-year-old then noticed that every time we turned on the radio, they were talking about "the Chinese Virus!" I swiftly nipped calling it that in the bud. She has two Chinese classmates and as an Iranian kid in the 80s, I know only too well how horrible it feels when bad things are attributed to you by other kids, simply because they happen in the geographic space you originated from.

My role in life, first and foremost, is being a parent (I wish it was flying the trapeze but I made my choices and here we are) and whatever my fears and anxiety, my job is to shield the children from those feelings.

This is the first time for many of my generation when the entire country fears something we can’t control taking away our freedom and putting our lives at risk. My family fled post-revolution Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini sent his goons to assassinate my dad in our London refuge. My parents couldn’t hide this information from us. Detectives came to our home and ordered us to leave with them that instant (though my mother STILL kept them waiting as she packed a suitcase full of essentials; coriander, tea and our samovar).

When the 19-year-old uncle we adored was shot dead in a demonstration in Tehran, or when our other uncle who was aged just 15 was sent to the front line in the Iran/Iraq war, they couldn't hide it from us then either. Uncle Mehrdad was still a child when he was captured and tortured for six months in Iraq and we saw our parents beside themselves on the phone to whoever they could get hold of during blackouts, for news of him. When he returned, his jet-black hair was snow-white (fear not, he is now a nurse and a wonderfully upbeat man who married the love of his life). During these times, our parents answered mine and my brother's questions matter-of-factly, honestly and allowed us to get the information we need, then run off and play. Children need questions answered honestly and simply and they need to know that if their parents are ok, they will be too.

I look back and marvel at how, despite everything, my parents hung on to their sense of humour. Even now, as my brother is on lockdown in Rome, our family WhatsApp is full of my parents' cheerfulness and jokes, keeping up our spirits. They have already shepherded us through a time when life as we knew it, with all its security and freedom, changed beyond all recognition. Now, here they are, among the most vulnerable to this virus, doing so again.

(My column this week has been tested negative for coronavirus. I cannot say the same for whatever you are reading it on, but do wash your hands before, after and, if you can tuck it under your chin, during reading it. I am NOT panicking!)

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