Commentary: My son and the coronavirus

Commentary: My son and the coronavirus

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My son lives in China, where he teaches at an international school in Shenzhen, so I have been getting daily reports about the coronavirus outbreak in the region. Early last week, he was preparing for a long-planned hiking trip in a mountainous area in southwestern China to visit Tiger Leaping Gorge. His trip was paid for, and he was packed and ready to leave Jan. 22 for his Lunar New Year school holiday.

As the coronavirus news broke last Monday, he called and said he was thinking about cancelling his trip. It would entail many hours of travel on crowded trains and he might contract the virus in such close quarters. Like any mother would do, I told him not to go - without hesitation. He was over 8,000 miles away, and there wasn't much I could do except talk to him by phone and report news that he might not have access to in China.

Despite being in the midst of a fast-growing viral epidemic, he wasn't convinced of the risk that day.

I trusted, or at least hoped, that he would come around, but his lifelong pattern of independence was not in my favor in this debate. At a young age, he put himself to bed with no assistance. After college, he took a job teaching high school on a tropical French island, Reunion, that is surrounded by shark-infested waters off the coast of Africa. He moved on after that to a teaching gig at a college in Ecuador before the latest gig in China teaching kindergarten and first grade. During school holidays, he visits as many countries as he can, which my collection of postcards can attest. He has traveled so much he had to add extra pages to his passport.

So he was determined to go on this trip and went shopping to get face masks, hand sanitizer, bottled water and food. The usually busy streets were not too crowded. Many stores and restaurants were closing, and hand sanitizer and soap were nowhere to be found - sold out everywhere. To think, he used to laugh at my husband's carefully stocked emergency supply kit of water, flashlights, peanut butter and powdered milk that lives in the laundry room, perched on top of a spare refrigerator.

We video chatted as he shopped, and since face masks are de rigueur, his face was mostly covered during the call. I sent him an online photo that showed a man in a face mask with a lit cigarette poking through a hole in the middle. The real public health issue that needs to be addressed, he contended, is spitting, a nasty habit in Hong Kong but not where he lives in mainland China. That, and the sale of bushmeat in the markets, has fueled the spread of this virus, my son was convinced. (Spitting was outlawed in Baltimore in the late 1800s to help prevent the spread of tuberculosis.)

Later that day, the news broke about the quarantining of Wuhan, ground zero for the virus. My son finally came to his senses. This worried mother breathed a sigh of relief. Wisely, he canceled his trip. A few days later, more Chinese cities were closed to travel, and Hong Kong canceled schools for a month. My son's school did the same. A friend sent him a photo of Corona beers with a message that said his refrigerator was infected with the corona virus.

As more and more case reports emerged about the spread of the virus to other cities and countries, we talked by phone multiple times a day. I was a nervous wreck, a worried mom. How long would it be before the epidemic peaked? How far and how fast would it spread? Was it advisable for him to stay in Shenzhen for a month until schools opened, and would he even be able to get out of China now?

Lucky for my anxious heart, my son decided to decamp as quickly as he could. It took two days of an "apocalyptic nightmare," as he described it, to get a visa to Sri Lanka and a flight out of China. He was pulled aside in the boarding line for the ferry to the airport for a "high temperature." After a consultation in a cramped room that included a recheck of his temperature, my son was cleared for boarding. He safely made it to Sri Lanka.

I am just glad he got out of China, and so far, avoided the potentially deadly coronavirus.



Toby Gordon ( is an associate professor at The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and deputy director of the Institute for Clinical Translational Research.

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