The outbreak of Covid-19 shocked the world; no one was prepared for just how stretched the capacity of healthcare systems would be. Non-essential medical procedures have been put on hold as patients face the risk of contracting the virus when going to appointments. Many pregnant women are also not allowed to give birth with a supportive partner present due to increased restrictions in hospitals. Expectant parents across the world are extremely concerned. Erin, a Canadian expat in Beijing, explains the challenges of giving birth during the Covid-19 pandemic and how they are now coping with a newborn during the lockdown.
Can you tell us a little bit about you and your family?
I am Canadian and my husband is Italian. We have three girls, ages 7, 4, and a newborn. We have been living in Beijing, China, since January 2019. Before moving here, we lived in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia. We work in international development.
Where were you when the outbreak started?
When the outbreak started we were at home in Beijing.
How did the government tackle the situation?
The government was quick to announce the actions that individuals should take. We were also kept well-informed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and followed their advice, which was to stay home and limit trips out. I was in my third trimester of pregnancy at the time and felt very comfortable with the level of advice we were getting from the WHO, hospitals and doctors, and the Chinese government.
The government also closed schools and businesses. As the outbreak happened during Chinese New Year, most schools were already closed along with the majority of businesses. It was interesting to see how things changed after the holidays. We didn’t get much closure because businesses and schools simply didn’t reopen. We went from everything being open one day, to everything being closed.
A lot of people were also left stranded overseas as many expats were on holidays during the festivities and were not allowed to come back in. Others, like us, had to make the decision to stay or to go back to their home country.
How has the public response been to any of the measures that the government put in place?
The public has been very supportive of the measures that the government has put in place. It was immediately clear that they were limiting exposure for foreigners as well as Chinese citizens. They were telling us what to do, so the majority of the public has been supportive of what was going on. The only challenge has been the lack of feedback from different services. For example, there was a lack of communication from the schools on what was happening and what was going to happen in the future. Of course that was because they didn’t know either. Everything was out of their hands too. There has been a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ for information.
Being in China has made us feel very safe. We feel that we’ve gotten a lot of guidance as workers, as a family, and as parents. There have been reassurances about food supply, even from the very beginning. We never had a lack of basic food supplies. We felt that although we limited how much we were going out, if we wanted to we would have been able to get what we needed.
Are your kids aware of the situation?
Yes, absolutely. They were aware from the very beginning because we changed our behaviors pretty quickly in terms of wearing masks, washing our hands and practicing social distancing.
We always wore masks when we went out if pollution levels were high, so we were lucky that they were familiar with needing to wear a mask. It is part of the culture here, so what changed was that we had to wear a mask every day instead of just some days.
Also, how we are going out changed. The kids had to wait in the car with my husband while I went in to have my required prenatal checkups because we didn’t have anyone at home to care for them.
We originally had planned for my in-laws to travel from Italy to stay with us, but their plans were canceled because of the outbreak. So we made the children aware of that right away. We told them that there was something like the flu going around and that they needed to make sure that they didn’t get sick. They understood why they had to wash their hands more and why they weren’t allowed to go to school. They adapted pretty quickly to homeschooling. I think it helped that they had each other. We just try to make it as fun as we can and focus more on their health and happiness.
How has your kids’ education been affected?
Teachers have been really great with sending us feedback. We have been doing homework that is sent to us each morning. We do it through the day and then in the evening we send photographs of the written work back. We make collages and different things online and we make videos if my eldest is too tired to write. For example, we made a video of her reading out some of the spelling words instead of writing it all down. It is really about being flexible. Her teacher has been fantastic in providing feedback that is useful to me as a parent trying to learn how to teach year two. She has also been fantastic to my daughter, sending personal voice messages every day so that she can still hear her voice and know that she is not alone. They are doing a weekly school chat as well so she can hear her friends from around the world and see that they are all in this together. That has been really important at this time.
Even my youngest’s education has been affected, as she normally goes to an Italian school. Now that she is mainly getting her schooling from me at home, the majority of it is in English so my husband switches into Italian whenever he can. Her second language has been affected and because I don’t speak Chinese, both children have lost out on that aspect too. Although their school does send information on the Chinese that they should be learning, I am a lot less likely to pick that up than the other subjects that I am more comfortable with. They are global kids but they are kind of missing out on the local level of education on the language side of things.
How was your experience of being pregnant and giving birth during the Covid-19 lockdown?
At my prenatal appointment right at the start of the outbreak, my doctor basically told me to just not get the virus. I appreciated that advice as it put me in control. We did everything we could as a family to limit our exposure: wearing masks, washing hands and not touching the buttons in the elevator. We used our own car to travel to appointments which is unusual for Beijing as normally people take taxis. I went into the hospital alone, constantly using hand sanitizer after touching anything from door handles to pens to iPads and even my phone, since here in Beijing we use our phones for everything, including as a virtual wallet. I was always sanitizing.
My doctor was put into quarantine due to overseas travel before my due date, though she ended up getting out the day before the delivery. When we got the call that she probably wouldn’t be available, we realized we had to be flexible and go with the flow. It showed us again what we could and couldn’t control. My husband ended up not being allowed in the delivery room and we both had to do blood tests for the virus. He even had to do a CT scan to get a pass to come to the hospital so that he could visit the baby and I. This was all in place to protect us, the patients, and also the staff. We wore surgical masks the entire time we were in the hospital, except when I was alone with the baby in my room. My husband was the only one who was allowed to visit us because they had a one visitor per patient policy. I appreciated that because it is customary for quite a few family members to come with each patient. My kids also had to wait until we were home to meet their sister as children weren’t allowed. All of this meant that the maternity ward was very quiet, which was nice. The doctors and nurses were always in masks and really vigilant about limiting exposure.
What has been the impact of the outbreak to your daily life, your job, etc.?
We’ve been lucky. The biggest impact of the outbreak has ended up being, in a way, something positive. My kids being home from school meant that they had way more time with their newborn baby sister. My husband working from home meant that he has taken over the cooking and the kids have seen him taking on a different role that they have never seen before. I think that we are all really appreciative of each other. We are lucky that we have space indoors and now outdoors too, as there is a park in the compound. Now that the weather is nice and warm, we can go down with masks while maintaining social distancing. We are allowed to get out of the house, so we are managing with the resources and the space that we have. We are grateful for the difference that has meant to us as a family in terms of what we have learned about each other.
On the really rough days when we are exhausted, frustrated or tired, we put on music and the kids do dance parties. Or we put on a movie and we have a picnic and a movie. Or we set up a tent in the living room and we pretend that we are camping. My husband and I can just relax with the baby and the girls can read books and play with our puppy Molly.
I think the biggest challenge has been the fact that we haven’t been able to see their grandparents. They’ve had to deal with the arrival of the new baby, and this pandemic, overseas. So the biggest impact on our family would be the lack of availability to go and visit them and make sure that they’re okay. They don’t have the ability to visit the grandkids and I don’t think we are going to be able to visit this summer either. So that’s a negative, but they understand and we are keeping in touch with emails, phone calls and video chats.
After almost three months, life in the time of COVID-19 has become the new normal. Our family has settled into the new schedule. I think a vacation will be well-deserved at the end of this, however I don’t think that is going to be for the next three to six months at minimum. We will be lucky if the kids get to go back to school in August or September. The majority of expat families are still overseas because the latest policy is to limit foreigners coming to the country as part of China’s overall plan to stop new cases of COVID-19. Lots of foreign workers, like diplomats, who were overseas for the Chinese New Year are still stuck overseas. The teachers that were on holidays when all of this started are also still away. There are many things that will need to come into play in a domino effect in order for services to get back to normal here.
How have you tackled living in quarantine?
We are doing pretty well. We were able to mentally prepare ourselves as we have lived in developing countries and are used to adapting to what we have. My husband and I have been through a few emergency scenarios that also helped us. When our first daughter was a newborn, there was an outbreak of cholera in the country that we were living in. We were living in Sri Lanka when we had our second daughter so we were always aware of dengue. So from that perspective, we are used to managing pregnancies in more challenging situations where there are different risks involved. I think we are a lot calmer than others who are experiencing this for the first time. I mean, no one has gone through a pandemic like this in our lifetime, but I think in terms of knowing how to adapt as a household, how to stockpile and those types of things, we had some of those skills already which came in pretty handy.
What kind of precautions are you and your family taking?
Now having a newborn at home, we follow the same mantra: recognize what we can control and what we can’t. We still limit shopping trips and the baby never comes into shops. I am grateful in a way that the kids are home from school as they get to bond with their baby sister. We haven’t had visitors to see the baby. Instead we chose to send lots of photos and videos, even to people here in Beijing. We are limiting checkups to only those that are absolutely essential, such as the one- and two-month checkups and immunizations.
Although some restaurants and some of the urban parks are starting to open up, we are not going out to them anytime soon. We just continue to do what we did before. We support local businesses by ordering what we need to be delivered to the compound gate. There are guards there to check everyone’s temperature and then we pick up our deliveries. That helps us limit the exposure but still allows us to order food from small bakeries. For the kids’ schooling, I can order craft supplies from local stationery shops. I can even get diapers from the local grocery shop and have everything delivered to the gate.
The baby has been super adaptable. She spends extra time lounging in the bouncer as I am homeschooling. If she gets really fussy I can put her in a baby wrap. When I’m tired and need a break, I’ll sit down and breastfeed the baby as the older kids watch storytime online or draw with one of the amazing authors that is doing online lessons these days.
Anything else you would like to add?
I am looking at a park in full bloom and the trees come out in different waves. That’s the way it has been designed. First there were cherry blossoms, then we had the purple magnolia, and now the lilacs are coming through. Everything comes in stages. I think this is how things have unfolded here and it is how it is unfolding around the world too. You can see the ripple effect. Just know that spring is going to come, proverbial or otherwise, wherever you are and it is going to be okay. It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be challenging. It’s a traumatic event for a lot of people and a lot of families. Stick with it and focus on keeping the kids happy and safe. Don’t worry too much about ABCs and math. If you don’t finish the worksheet don’t sweat it. Instead think about how the children will feel and what they are thinking. At the end of the day, that’s what they are going to remember from all of this. They are going to remember that they feel safe, loved, and that they baked cookies, not what schoolwork they have done. They are not going to remember one million activities, so take it easy on yourself and know there you’re going to get through this.
I also wanted to mention that we recognize how lucky we are that we are able to put on music for the kids and let them have a dance party. Or run water and splash around in the bathtub if they’re going crazy. We don’t take these resources for granted. We know that there are millions of vulnerable families around the world that can’t do that. We are very grateful for being here in China and for the support of our families from overseas while we get through this. We really hope that the global community rallies together so that everybody can get through this and have the resources that they need. These resources might include drinking water or extra shelters, or funding for different programs and support for local businesses. We hope that governments get it together to make sure that the most vulnerable people in the community feel as safe and secure as we have.
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