Editor’s Note: Kent Sepkowitz is a CNN medical analyst and a physician and infection control expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
This Sunday, the Covid-19 pandemic, which already has flattened several holiday celebrations – Mardi Gras, St Patrick’s, Passover, Easter, Ramadan – will run over another. And not just any holiday, but the one that for many, including me, is the most important of them all: Mother’s Day.
Even for ardent social distancing enthusiasts, the urge to gather, to cut a few corners, bend the rules and not the curve, to try to outsmart the current rules of engagement, will be intense. I mean, if the weather is nice, we could sit outdoors six feet apart and wave, right? And the presents, we could put them in a room for three days and…
But let’s be smart and safe about this. To help sort through what’s ahead, here are a few tips to help you plan.
Virtual or in person?
Families that live far away from mothers or grandmothers are the only ones with a simple choice –call or video-chat.
But what if you typically pack up and head over to see Mom? Or wait for Mom to visit? Or meet in a restaurant? What should you do?
As difficult as it is, the answer is simple. Don’t.
Travel and uncertainty will make not only the day itself unsettling, but for the two weeks afterward every sneeze, every cough and every ache experienced by anyone will spark panic and regret. The visit is simply not worth the risk – however small – of exposing Mom to the virus that causes Covid-19.
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Besides, we were given Zoom, and a two-month lead on how to use it, precisely because we knew Mother’s Day was coming, right? OK, the fun wore off quickly and we know what everyone’s walls and bookshelves look like, and the discussions of walls and bookshelves already is stale.
Indeed, Zoom and its competitors have become a chore, starting with the fumbling and technical chaos at the start and ending with the realization that no one really knows when or how to leave the call without seeming rude.
But this is for Mom. And with everyone’s mom at the center of the call, the circle of Zoomers will quickly fall in line and resume where they were the last time the family gathered, with grudges, slights, misunderstandings, and – special new feature – private chats to complain. Introducing America’s first virtual Festivus – which will be wonderful.
What about food?
The busiest day for restaurants is not Christmas or Valentine’s Day, but Mother’s Day.
By a long shot. Conviviality, though, relies on proximity, right? How do we make it festive if we are staring at 13-inch screens miles apart?
This one is easy – order in big meals for Mom and you and your siblings and the entire extended family. Parents love to watch their children and grandchildren eat. I know this both as a former child and a current parent. The joy of watching a loved one pack down a good meal, even on video, is much better than consuming the meal oneself. Plus, food adds easy topics for consideration during the e-chat.
And what about Grandma?
This is the only truly difficult question. There will a chance to talk to Mom tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. Go ahead and creep in this petty pace. She will understand.
But what about an elderly mother or grandmother living alone or in a long-term care facility? America has 1,600 nursing homes caring for 1.3 million residents and about 70% of the residents are women. This is because women live four or five years longer than men in just about every society, creating the imbalance.
And as has been well-documented in recent weeks, nursing homes, along with prisons and meat-packing factories, currently are the hot spots of Covid-19 transmission. At least 1 in 10 nursing homes have a case (which usually means many more than one case) Recent estimates place the number of nursing home deaths from Covid-19 at 17,000, a number that is sure to rise.
It unfortunately gets worse: When France began to include nursing home deaths in their tally, the number of fatalities doubled. In New Jersey, the governor announced recently that about half of the fatalities in the entire state were related to nursing homes, a predicament that has now made employees fear becoming ill and has prevented loved ones from being able to visit. And in the US, the enforcement of protective regulations has been loosened, not tightened, despite the tragedy.
When the story of the Covid-19 pandemic finally is written, the ongoing cruel disregard for the elderly will stand out as a shocking example of inhumanity. The federal government has made no concerted attempt to address the problem beyond guidance to sharply restrict visitors and recommend supplies that seldom are available.
Though facilities generally do not allow visitors, a simple solution to visitor restrictions, such as establishing rapid testing stations at these facilities and supplying everyone with appropriate masks and gloves, has not even been undertaken at scale nationally.
Indeed, testing of residents and staff and reporting the results to the public, particularly to families, has been done haphazardly if at all.
So for a Mother’s Day gift this year, in addition to the scarf or picture frame or home-drawn greeting card, consider making noise. Call someone – a President, a senator, a governor, a mayor, a hapless Cabinet member, anyone and everyone – to deliver one loud message: The cruel and unusual punishment of the elderly, who raised us, loved us, and protected us for our entire life, simply cannot continue.