Can I catch it from my friend’s pencil?: Talking to kids about COVID-19

Kids ask the darndest things in the middle of a pandemic. Such as: can they catch COVID-19 from their friend’s pencil and who ate the bat and why do grown-ups have to wear masks but they don’t?

But science educator Michelle Dickinson, one of New Zealand’s most recognised scientists, says many parents are nervous about talking to their children about the coronavirus.

New Zealand scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, with a coronavirus stuffed toy.

“There’s lots of children who talked to us through our online platforms saying, ‘I am really scared. I know it’s serious because Mum and Dad aren’t talking about it,' ” Dr Dickinson says.

“Instead they are learning about the virus from the playground conversation, which as you know, is full of boogeymen and monsters and is actually much worse.”

Enter Dr Dickinson – or to be more precise her superhero alter ego, Nanogirl – who uses a blue stuffed toy with wonky eyes to explain to children on YouTube videos how the virus takes hold in our bodies.

The toy, which looks like a cross between a crazed octopus and a cleaning mitt, was made for another purpose entirely and named Slime Bug.

But casting around for something to bring the virus to life, Dr Dickinson realised Slime Bug’s “sticky out bits” replicated COVID-19’s “dangly bits”, which Nanogirl explains in the video “stick to our lungs” and make it hard to breathe.

“It was one of those brainstorms of what do I have around to just explain … something that is invisible, which can seem very scary,” Dr Dickinson says.

In another video Nanogirl discusses how soap kills the coronavirus. (In short, COVID-19 wears a double-layered coat made of fat which is burst by soap.)

Dr Dickinson encourages parents to employ similar techniques to explain the virus.

“Put some sticky, googly eyes on it and make it a soft toy and you can help children to imagine something … and therefore how they can get rid of it,” she says.

“By having these conversations at home, children didn’t think there was a big scary thing that grown-ups weren’t talking about, but instead felt included and then empowered to help keep the family safe by keeping their hands washed and sneezing into a tissue.”

It was Dr Dickinson who persuaded New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to hold a special press conference just for children.

“I said to the Prime Minister, ‘Look, I think we need to have conversations with children because they are scared’ … so we decided very quickly we were going to run a press conference just for children.”

Dr Michelle Dickinson, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (centre) and Dr Siouxsie Wiles at the press conference for children in New Zealand.

The kids-only press conference was held on March 18, just two days after Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, held a similar event.

“We think children should feel they are taken seriously in a crisis like this,” Ms Solberg told CNN.

The leaders were praised for paving the way in their response to the pandemic.

Dr Dickinson says the children-only press conference was one of the most powerful things New Zealand did to start conversations about COVID-19 within families.

“We socially distanced children who came in and got to ask real questions about rumours they had heard in the playground or things they had heard Mum and Dad say and they wanted to know from a real scientist ‘Was this true?’ ” Dr Dickinson says.

“Questions like: ‘Can I catch it from my friend’s pencil in their pencil case?’ Things that are really concerning children.”

Dr Dickinson believes it’s important to reassure children that young people who do get COVID-19 are often asymptomatic or have milder symptoms. She calls it their “super immune system”. “It’s that whole worst-case scenario. Actually as children even if they do get it, hopefully it’s not going to be a disaster.”

Dr Dickinson says she dreams of the day Victoria holds a kids-only press conference.

“I have been doing quite a lot of work in Victoria and I am surprised that the conversations are not happening with children still,” she says.

“There are lots of children scared about should I go to school, should I play sport, what happens if it comes back.”

In the meantime, we asked Age readers to submit questions to Dr Dickinson from their children about the coronavirus.

The questions, which Dr Dickinson describes as “utterly delightful”, range from existential to practical to whimsical.

Some, such as the grade one student who is scared to go back to school, are poignant: ‘When are schools going to be safe for us? Won’t it just happen again?”

Dr Dickinson responds that schools won’t reopen until it is safe to do so, although she predicts they may “flip flop” between face-to-face and remote learning if there are local COVID-19 outbreaks.

“And you need to understand that actually things might be different when you go back. Maybe you might not be able to sit as close to your friends, or maybe assemblies won’t be whole school assemblies any more.”

Dr Dickinson says there is no evidence eating a bat is how humans got the virus. (This rumour, she says, started from tourism videos of people eating bats, which were made outside China.) As for bats, they tend to host a lot of viruses that don’t make them sick: “So I think the bats are going to be OK.”

She predicts a vaccine is still 18 months away (a year is needed to test for side effects such as rashes and headaches). But when one is available, Dr Dickinson reassures a child worried they won’t be able to go to school unless they are vaccinated, she doesn’t think vaccinations will be mandatory.

COVID-19 is so named because the virus was found in 2019, Dr Dickinson says. The virus looks like a “spiky ball”, with little slivers of instructions inside “which are like spaghetti”.

She tells four-year-old Stevie, from Sandringham, that the reason she doesn’t have to wear masks when grown-ups do is that some four-year-olds keep touching their mask “because it is annoying”.

When will the coronavirus be over? Rafe, 7, from Fitzroy North, asked the question on everyone’s minds.Credit:Justin McManus

“Actually that makes you more at risk of being infected because you might get your mask dirty and then be breathing in some of those germs.”

But for some questions, Dr Dickinson doesn’t have the answers.

When Rafe, 7, from Fitzroy North, asks what we all want to know – “When will the coronavirus be over?” – Dr Dickson says we still don’t know if it will be eradicated like SARS or return every year like the flu virus.

She says it is also not known yet if children who are infected will have long-term effects.

And there are still mysteries, which is one of the reasons Dr Dickinson loves science.

Asked by Seb, 7, from Wollongong, how COVID-19 popped up again in New Zealand after it was eliminated, Dr Dickinson admits the country is still trying to figure that out.

She says genomic testing of people infected with COVID-19 who have come through quarantine does not match the new cases.

“What we know so far with our detective skills is it is a really strange version of the virus that we haven't seen in any of the studies through our border control. So it could still have come in from a different means and we are not sure what that is. And that’s what I love about science – it’s a bit like being a detective looking for clues.”

Dr Dickinson is in awe of how much children know and the sophistication of their vocabulary.

“They were able to use terms like virus and transmission, even as six-year-olds, and these are words they would have learnt very recently,” she says. “Also the fact children wanted to know answers so they could make positive change.”

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