The other day, while following the Pope’s Mass online with a couple of friends, I heard kids playing outside the door. As usual when kids play, they had these meaningless conversations on a randomly-changing roster of topics, none of which was exhausted before the next one took its place. At one point, they started chanting “coronavirus, coronavirus,” interspersed with some words I cannot remember.
It took me back to late 2001. I was a kid then, in the second year of primary school. 9/11 had just happened. It was the first major global crisis I can remember. But I don’t remember it as 9/11. What I remember is the name of Osama bin Laden and as a strong fear of airplanes. I remember looking up every time a plane passed. One day, walking home from school, I did this and found myself on the ground, between the wheels of an older student’s bicycle.
Since then I have seen other crises, like the Kenyan post-election violence of 2007/8 and the global recession that accompanied it. These two crises framed my entry into teenage. I recall vividly the convoy of buses, with armed police escort, in which my dad and I travelled to Nairobi for high school in February 2008 because the roads weren’t safe. My grandma had doused us with copious amounts of holy water before we set off. I remember that I knew what it was all about.
The kids playing outside the door reminded me of 9/11 instead of the other crises for a reason. You see, kids don’t give a rat’s ass about global crises. It is true they know we are in a crisis right now, because the scared adults in their lives can’t stop talking about it. But they don’t know what it means. And even if they did, they wouldn’t know that a rat’s ass can be given about it. The few of them who have ever seen a rat probably don’t know how much its ass means to adults.
When you are a kid, you don’t care that a curfew has been declared. Though adults lament their lost Friday plots, you live under a permanent curfew imposed by nature. By 7:00 pm your freaking eyelids are so heavy, your parents or older siblings have to shove food down your throat. They have to shout at you to prevent you from hitting your head on the wall as you drowsily walk to the bathroom.
When you are a kid, you don’t know that a certain priest took too big a gamble after coming back from a hotspot of the current outbreak. Or that the media then switched into classic fake news mode and called the entire Catholic Church an agent of death as a result. Slander and freedom of speech mean nothing to you, because you judge the relative appropriateness of your words by the strength of the slap you get after saying them.
When you are a kid, “coronavirus” is either a cool word you hear being thrown around, which your consciousness can’t let you forget, so that it comes out naturally when you are playing with your mates outside a stranger’s door. Or maybe it is a threat your parents have used against you when trying to convince you that you must come in for your bath. If a threatening dichotomy can be drawn between bath and coronavirus, then coronavirus must be worse.
I remember telling a friend recently that I was glad to be an adult during this crisis. My main argument was that, unlike all the other previous crises, I can understand this one reasonably deeply. I can read the scientific papers and add my voice to the polemics. But those kids playing outside made me question this conviction. Is it really better to be an adult during a crisis?
The classic trope is that, during a war, men go out to fight for their women and children. These days, the women say they need no one to fight for them, and have claimed a place for themselves in the armed forces and most of the historically masculine professions. All good, until the shooting starts… But the kids? They couldn’t care less who fights for them. They don’t even know someone has to fight for them.
The only fights they care about are those they take part in. To them, these fights have a world-changing significance and sometimes acquire epic proportions. But they forget about them almost as soon as the kicking and scratching ends. Looked at objectively, their fights are less remarkable as the proverbial storm in a teacup, which would be quite a sight, if you think about it.
Being a kid means being vulnerable to all the stupidity and evil of the adults. It means not being able to protest when your government takes too much for granted when formulating the policies that determine the type and quality of education you get. It means not knowing whether your neighbourhood is suitable for human habitation. It means not being aware that the Kenyan police force is the best study in colossal dolt-headedness.
The innocence of kids means we, the adults, have to take all the responsibility for their well-being, without expecting their gratitude. Being a kid means the adults have to do all the real fighting. If we, the adults, do not bear that burden properly, if we fail, if we let crises get too close to them, then kids have to take care of themselves long before they know what it means to do so. If we fail, our kids lose their innocence in a snap, instead of growing out of it.
It is for this reason that I stand by my argument that I am glad I am an adult during this crisis. Being a kid might be an alluring lifestyle, but I already had my turn. Now it’s time for me to fight the big battles for them. From home.
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