Just as the Irish nation is celebrating the return to normal, glamourising getting drunk in pubs and night clubs, my house is torn apart into isolations zones to keep us safe. Me, in my bedroom, scrolling through social media feed for 150th time today. A pile of books and crosswords scattered all over the bed, laptop cooling down by my side. I am also watching the sunset over the fields through the window and put aside a teapot of green tea that I couldn’t finish on my own. I had my breakfast in bed, I had my lunch in bed, and I will have my dinner here, too – in solitude.
No, I’m not sick with Covid-19. Not yet. But I may be tomorrow or the day after, and I don’t know what it would mean for me.
I am 38 weeks pregnant with our third baby. I am not vaccinated due to medical reasons. It is risky for me to get the vaccine while being pregnant. I need to wait until the baby is born.
Our other children are ten and five. For the most part of the past two years, we have been stuck together in our house, just the four of us. We worked from home, side by side, we home schooled the kids at the same time. It was challenging, tiring, but it worked. It made us closer than ever before, it gave us invaluable time that we have spent together. And as an added bonus, it kept us safe. Two negative PCR tests in two years, one for me, one for the youngest daughter – just as a precaution. That was the closest we have come to Covid.
Last June we found out we were expecting another baby. Despite the still ‘uncertain times’ we were over the moon to learn the news. Without being vaccinated, it was risky – we knew it all along. On top of that, this pregnancy was a tough ride with hyperemesis gravidarum. I ended up working exclusively from home since the middle of July until my maternity leave two weeks ago. My husband was working from home to keep our exposures to the minimum. It also meant no going out to pubs or restaurants, no social gatherings, no holidays. The only thing out of our control was schools.
Our youngest started school last September. I was a bit worried about sending children to school but there wasn’t much choice. Children need education, I understand. They were sorted into pods, there was some form of contact tracing, declaration forms to sign and policies on staying home when displaying any symptoms of illness. It wasn’t 100% safe but it was something.
The first sign of nightmare started in December, a few short weeks after reopening of nightclubs and scrapping of contact tracing in schools along with the reduction in self-isolation times for school children. We got a message about a confirmed case in our eldest child’s pod. One day after there was another case in their pod. There was a good chance our daughter was infected too. So could be I, unvaccinated, carrying a baby. As the daily numbers of positive cases were creeping up we made a prompt decision to take both children out of schools until it was safe to go back.
We were lucky to avoid Covid that time. It could be the masks that had just been introduced for those over 9 years old. It could be something else. But after two weeks of testing all the tests had been negative. We had a lovely Christmas, happy, safe.
Then here came January.
Unfortunately, over the Christmas the daily case numbers started creeping up much higher and by the time it was time to return to school, the daily number of cases was at a 20,000 mark.
My heart was breaking at the mere thought of sending them back to school – it just didn’t feel safe, didn’t feel right. I hoped the schools would not reopen. But they did. We made another decision to keep them home until the following Monday, still hoping that the wind would change and the schools would close with the shortage of staff, kids missing out and the numbers rising with every day.
That didn’t happen. The government, the health authorities and the department of education maintained that schools were low risk and they had to remain open. They maintained that the negative effects on children’s mental health from being out of school were by far worse than the low risks of contracting Covid-19 in school. They reassured that children did not transmit the disease in schools but instead nearly all cases originated from their homes.
I knew better than to believe it. My instincts told me that I should keep them home. Except that both had circa 20 days missed due to illnesses and the Covid-19 scare early in December. I thought of home-schooling, but that meant registering them with Tusla, which would need to assess the program I would teach the kids and decide if it is adequate. Being a few short weeks away from the due date, I thought of simply keeping them home until the baby arrived. But the daunting messages of missed days kept coming every day. I did my research – there was no exception, no adequate basis for missing school in our case. There is only a handful of exceptional circumstances where a child is high-risk and has to stay at home when certified by GP. Luckily, and I mean luckily, this wasn’t our case. Our case was my vulnerability due to being unable to get vaccinated when being pregnant, and the fast approaching baby’s arrival. Unfortunately, even having someone classified as very high risk in the household does not allow children to stay out of school. The authorities still maintain the schools are safe and it’s extremely unlikely that the child pick up the virus at school and bring it home. Which makes me wonder – how do they pick up chicken pox, hand, foot and mouth, and headlice? Or do they bring it to school from home?
Hands tied by the lack of choice, I had to send them back to school with a heavy-heavy heart. I cried a lot – I practically mourned my family’s safety. My baby’s safety. But I had no choice. Off to school they went on the 10 January.
Fast forward to 21 January, a text arrived warning of a Covid-19 case in my littlest’s class. We tested her that day, she was negative. Next day, after spending a whole day with her (including being stuck in the car with her for nearly two hours while her sister practised tennis), she spiked a fever, and we took another torturous test, which came back positive within a couple minutes. The real nightmare has begun.
It’s not easy to isolate a five-year old, who is running a fever and is upset after taking the scary antigen test for the second day in a row. It’s even harder to be a pregnant mother of this child and not being able to comfort her, to soothe her, to hold her in my arms. She went into self-isolation that same evening and I went into mine, just to be safe. I only saw her once across the corridor and then on Whatsapp. I cannot even see a glimpse of her when she is asleep – those cutest little moments when she still looks to me like on the day she was born. She drew some pictures for me, showing a crying face and writing “MOM IMISSU” and I just couldn’t hold back the tears. I cannot hold them even now, writing this a few days later.
To give her credit, she is being very stoic for a five-year old. She takes the isolation well, she plays, she sings, she makes mess and she cleans it up, and she changes her clothes five times a day to reflect her mood and imagination, while I can’t find a place for myself confined in my room with all the books, crosswords, laptops and phones. So far I found my solace in texting my husband who is camping out downstairs and seeing glimpses of my eldest daughter as she shows off her brilliant drawings from a distance.
We’re now less than 2 weeks away from the due date. And yesterday morning my husband tested positive for Covid, too. Our eldest and I continue to test negative but I cannot be sure it’ll stay that way. My only consolation is that it seems to be a very mild form with virtually no fever and just a little bit of cough and snuffles. My daughter has been fever free since Sunday and I can hardly hear her cough or sneeze at all. What will come next though I do not know.
Will I get sick? It’s possible. Will it affect my baby? I don’t know, but my hope is that it won’t. If I go into labour sooner, will I have to birth alone? Most likely. I am not even sure how I will get to the hospital, if that’s the case. And what if I get sick myself close to the labour time? How will that affect the labour and our baby? I do not know.
The thing I know for sure is that no pregnant woman should be going through this worry in her final weeks of pregnancy. I also know that we did everything right and took every precaution, but we trusted the system, and it failed. Yes, the majority of cases do originate in households or outside of school, but children bring it there and they do spread it. In our case, Covid-19 did not start here at home, it came from school and now it’s in my home. And finally, I know that I miss my children and my husband, and naturally worry about which way this all is going to go.
I didn’t want to write this post for pity, but this is my final cry of hope for some sensibility. From day 1 of the pandemic, it was never about me or even my family – it was always about protecting the vulnerable around us. I didn’t follow the rules to protect myself, I followed them to protect those who were most at risk. And now I know how scary it may feel being on the other side.