Lisa Ling wants me to stop apologizing. The journalist and host of Road to A Vaccine, an eight-part educational series covering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the hunt for a successful and safe coronavirus inoculation, is gracious in her understanding: I'm five minutes late for the scheduled interview I've already rescheduled once, after my 1-year-old son ran into my living room bookshelf, split his head open, and needed six stitches expertly placed by the nearest emergency room physician.
"Girl, I’ve been there. No need to apologize at all, I’m just so glad he’s OK," Ling assures me. "You're probably going to have PTSD for a bit. I have so been there."
Ling isn't lying for my sake, either. The mother of two kids, ages 7 and 4, knows what it's like to manage work and parenting simultaneously, something that has become exponentially more difficult now that the current public health crisis has forced parents to facilitate their kids' at-home e-learning while somehow finding a way to work from home — if they're lucky enough to still be working at all, something Ling also knows a little something about.
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"Work on my original show This Is Life on CNN has been halted," Ling explains. "We’ll start back again pretty soon, but for months I would have otherwise not really been able to do much work."
Right now, that work involves interviewing the foremost scientists and health care experts in the world as they continue their attempts to find new and innovative ways to treat and combat COVID-19.
"There’s this appetite for science in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever experienced before..."
"It has been such an incredible opportunity for me to be able to not only work during all of this, but to be able to sort of immerse myself in information about something that I have just been burying myself n since day one," Ling says. "There’s this appetite for science in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever experienced before, and I know that when this all started that I was just going down the rabbit-hole of trying to read as much as I possible could on everything related to COVID."
Understanding the global impact of COVID-19 includes learning about the challenges parents are facing — like trying to juggle multiple responsibilities simultaneously to the point that they're forced to take their eyes off their smallest children for two seconds only to have those children find inexplicable ways to hurt themselves — and how the pandemic is impacting kids.
"Certainly we know that kids carry the virus and can spread the virus — in some cases kids can carry even more virus than adults," Ling explains. "But I think that the biggest toll that kids are experiencing is really their mental health, and the inability to really socialize in a way that they should be able to."
One study, published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, found that children have exhibited symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of COVID-19 and lockdown efforts. The same study found that children are more susceptible to long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic as well.
"I see it in my own kids — the longing to see friends and have interactions with their peers," Ling says. "And I think that while being able to be digital and go to school online has been incredibly helpful — had this happened 20 years ago before the web was as widespread I don’t know what we would do — by the same token I think many kids are starting to exhibit behavior issues."
But Ling also believes in the resiliency of children, and know that they're far more capable of understanding what is happening and adapting to the moment than us parents often assume.
"I guess I’m pretty lucky: my kids are young but they really have just gotten used to wearing masks — sometimes I even have to tell them that they can take them off when we’re in the car or when we’re outside," Ling explains. "And I really take that as a positive because they’ve become accustomed to it."
"I do think that it is sad that our kids are having to live differently when we did when we were kids," she adds. "But the sad reality is this may not be the only pandemic that they experience in their lifetime."
"The unprecedented mess of all of this has not gotten lost on me."
This is why Ling encourages parents to feel comfortable facilitating conversations with their kids (in age appropriate ways) regarding the pandemic, and to check in with them frequently to better gauge how the crisis is impacting them. In one particular segment on Road to a Vaccine, Ling interviewed Vikram Patel, MBBS, Ph.D., Professor of Global Health in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, to discuss the physical and mental ramifications of the pandemic.
"When I was talking to him about kids and mental health he did say something that really made me emotional, which is: are you talking to your kids about everything that’s happening?" Ling explains. "Are you asking them how they’re feeling? And I became emotional because the truth of the matter is that I hadn’t asked them. My husband and I are trying to be so proactive of them, but it’s really important that we check in with them and regularly asking them how they're feeling about everything that’s happening."
"And I thought that was such great, great advice," she continues, "to not operate in a compartmentalized way."
And while Ling believes in and has witnessed the resiliency and adaptability of children, and believes they're capable of having these discussions and actually benefit from them, she is also frustrated by the necessity of it all.
"This crisis, I think where we are right now, could have been averted if we had all taken the proper steps and taken this pandemic more seriously," she says. "If we had we followed the guidelines and taken this virus seriously we wouldn’t be in this position now, and that’s the thing that’s frustrating."
"The unprecedented mess of all of this has not gotten lost on me," Ling continues. This is a period that our kids are going to tell their kids about and their kids are going to tell their kids about, and sometimes that’s overwhelming because there are so many uncertainties right now. And it’s our job as parents to instill confidence as kids and be able to take care of our kids and protect them when things go wrong. And when you don't have answers, when there are so many questions, it’s scary — it’s scary to think we’re raising kids at this time."
Which is why Ling is proud of hosting a show rooted in science and dedicated to making that science easier to understand, for parents and their kids. She just hopes that people take that science to heart.
"My hope is that if we have learned anything from this, it’s that we need leadership and we need to trust science."