I’m Afraid My Parents Will Get the Coronavirus Because They’re Bad at the Internet

an older woman using a laptop

I live in New York City, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus in the U.S. right now (I can’t forget this, because my New York Times phone alerts tell me approximately three times a day). My daily routine, which used to include luxuries like babysitters and coffee runs, now has me working from home and taking care of my infant full-time. I have to do it all very quietly, because my husband is working at his laptop ten feet away. I don’t have to explain this to you, because this is probably a lot like your life right now, too. For most of us, this is the new normal.

We have a countertop hospital-grade sanitizer, and countless times a day, we stuff it with the baby’s toys, as well as our keys and cell phones. We cook every meal at home—I’m too scared to order delivery. My one respite from the chaos of our messy apartment is a late afternoon walk with my eight-month-old, rain or shine. When the park got too crowded, we ventured to a more industrial part of the neighborhood, where it’s not quite as safe, but panting joggers and snotty-nosed kids are few and far between. Even on sunny days, I keep the baby’s rain shield attached to the stroller, so I can pull it down quickly to protect her if someone gets too close.

Eighty miles north, my retired dad and stepmother live in a vacation town in the mountains. When I heard that the virus was especially severe for people ages 70 and older, I was concerned for them, but they’re both in good health with no pre-existing conditions. Plus, they live in the middle of nowhere; the chances of either of them catching it are slim, right?

But the more I talk to them—through texts, Facetime and on the phone—I realize they might as well be on the moon. Last month, when the idea of social distancing was just starting to be mentioned on the news, my stepmother sent me and my stepsiblings a text: “Stay safe and be informed, everyone!” Sound advice. But a few minutes later, she followed it up with a message obviously screenshot and pasted from Facebook, insisting that she had a friend of a friend had a friend who was an infectious disease specialist in China, who said that the virus can be cured by drinking a small sip of water every 15 minutes.

I immediately Googled the information and found several reputable articles online refuting this ridiculous claim. I sent a story from the AP back to her, which was debunking rumors about the virus, then followed it up with a probably-too-snarky text reading, “Um, if sipping water cured the virus, do you really think there’d be a worldwide pandemic right now?”

I didn’t want my stepmom to feel embarrassed, but she needed learn to be more discerning about the sources of her information, especially if she was going to pass it along to others as fact. “But a good friend posted that on Facebook,” she responded. “If his friend is an infectious disease specialist, why wouldn’t I trust him over this internet article you found?” She followed that up with another pasted message. A friend of a friend who worked for Bill de Blasio said that New York City was going to be shut down over the weekend, and that I shouldn’t go anywhere because I wouldn’t be allowed back in my apartment. I didn’t even bother to look that one up.

As the days went on, I realized this wasn’t just about the virus—it was about a fundamental inability to separate fact from fiction on the internet. And while it might be mildly amusing on a random weekend when she’s forwarding around Onion articles thinking they’re real, it’s downright harrowing when she’s an at-risk person during a global pandemic. And because many of our parents and older relatives didn’t grow up with the internet, some of them have a more difficult time combing through the billions of articles and stories to find reputable ones. 

Even more worrisome: The last time I talked to my parents, they were still moving forward with a home renovation they’d planned before the outbreak. “It’s just a couple of people working in here, and it’s the same guys every day,” my dad told me nonchalantly. “They don’t seem to take this whole coronavirus thing that seriously,” my stepmom added. “They’re happy to keep working.” I tried to explain to my parents that it’s their responsibility as employers to keep their employees safe, not the other way around. But they didn’t seem to think it was an issue. Then I asked my parents if they were disinfecting their house. “Oh yes, we’re wiping down every surface with vinegar.” Vinegar has been widely reported as not being effective at killing the virus, and if they had been watching the news or reading anything even remotely reputable about the pandemic, they would have known that.

After giving them an angry ten-minute lecture about the importance of completely isolating, especially at their age and offering to send them a few bottles of isopropyl alcohol, I got off the phone feeling stressed and panicky. Why were they being so resistant to this? Was their inability to stay connected really putting them in that much of a bubble that they could simply ignore what was going on in the rest of the world?

I worry about my dad and stepmom occasionally, but this is the first time that it’s actively kept me up at night, like a parent would worry about a child. And like children, they’ve somehow been able to stay blissfully unaware that something truly serious is happening. And after polling my friends and co-workers, I realized that I’m not the only one worrying about their older relatives’ behavior right now.

“I love my mother and she’s a smart woman, and she keeps saying she wants to stay positive about all of this,” one friend told me. But to her mom, being positive means denying the virus is a problem. “When I told her she was standing too close to a neighbor, she shrugged me off. She told me she wasn’t going to stop being a good neighbor because of the craziness going on. We ended up getting into a screaming match, but I’d rather get into an argument with her every day than watch her potentially get sick.”

My co-worker’s 95-year-old grandma is so set in her ways, she’s unwilling to change her routine of going to the grocery store every other day, even if it means getting seriously ill. “I think part of the problem is that she's not aware of how serious it is,” she told me. “She also figures that she's old and going to die soon anyway. It’s so morbid, but those are her words, not mine. It's frustrating, but what can we do? She's been living this way for decades. The only thing she has agreed to—thankfully—is to stop taking public transportation. But she's not happy about it!” 

For some parents, complying with social changes can mean the loss of their income, further compounding the issue. “My dad has never been one to watch the news,” another friend confided to me. “He’s stubborn and he is a small business owner, so I think it’s a mix of denial and lack of information. Really, what other option does he have? It also doesn't help that his town isn't taking the pandemic seriously. Two weeks ago, while I was on lockdown, his town (my childhood home) was filled with friends still having gatherings and their kids’ birthday parties, hugging and having a great was wild.”

So, what the heck do you do when you’re faced with a parent, grandparent or other relative who is misinformed, in denial or just plain stubborn?

1. Use ‘I’ language. “In an effort to maintain relationships during this time, family members can appeal to the humanity that connects us all,” Tina Timm, associate professor in Michigan State’s School of Social Work told me. “Perhaps saying to someone who isn’t engaging in social distancing, ‘I feel scared for your safety and for the safety of others when I see you not taking the recommended precautions.’ As a general rule, using ‘I language’ helps decrease the likelihood of defensiveness and tends to be a softer start-up to a conversation.”

2. Be firm. “Family members need to remember that they have a right to set firm boundaries with those who are not social distancing,” Timm added. “They should be clear with family members who are not taking social distancing seriously that they will not be allowed to visit. As difficult as this is, these boundaries could mean the difference between life and death for some people.”

3. Lead by example. Tanya Alim, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., gave me another helpful idea: "One thing you could say is the reason you are following social distancing guidelines and not visiting the person or others,” she suggested. “You could tell them, 'I'm staying home, and not going out as often to protect loved ones. I want to protect my loved ones who may be at risk.'" This way, you’re not overtly giving a lecture, just quietly leading by example, which can keep your loved ones from getting defensive.

4. State the facts (over and over and over). “Depending on what they are watching or reading, your family members may not be receiving fact-based information,” says Timm. “The most gentle way of sharing information with a family member who is spreading mis-information is to share trusted sources, such as the CDC website with them with a note that says, ‘I found this information to be quite helpful and thought you might enjoy reading it.’”

5. Be patient. Instead of snapping at a misinformed family member (like I did), prepare a calm statement you can have ready to tell your relative next time the issue comes up. Alim suggests saying something like, “‘There's a lot of information out there, but not all of it is accurate. Misinformation and rumors can be dangerous. We have to check our sources. The CDC is considered an essential source for learning about the virus. We are learning more as we go along. We need to check our sources before we spread the news.’”

At the end of the day, we can’t control what our parents and grandparents do. Although my parents live in a small town where the coronavirus isn’t as much on the radar yet, I need to keep remembering that am in their circle of influence. What I say—and how I say it—might make an impact. Ultimately, my parents did eventually pause the home renovation (although it was the contractor’s decision, not theirs) and have been wiping down their doorknobs with alcohol. Every day, I tell myself I will check in, make sure they’re safe, and keep them informed as calmly as I can. What they decide to do with that information will be up to them.