Angelica Bergoo, 35, has lived with her family at Yokota Air Base in Japan for the past 18 months. She says she first heard about the coronavirus in January; by the end of the month, a cruise ship with infected passengers was quarantined less than two hours away.
Arwen McCaffrey, 39, moved to Germany from South Carolina five months ago with her four children, ages 8 to 15. It wasn’t long after her move that she first started hearing about the coronavirus, then still clustered in China, on the news. In February, “when it was clear that the virus was spreading into Europe,” she says, she and other moms on base started paying attention.
While some areas of the U.S. are just beginning to reckon with the spread of the coronavirus, for military families, preparing for the spread of COVID-19 has been a part of daily life for months now. The families who make up base life are also prime examples of how to prepare for this new normal.
“We are used to situations changing quickly and completely,” says McCaffrey, whose husband is stationed at Ramstein Air Base. “In that way, being a military family prepared us well for the pandemic.”
Military Families Prepare For The Unexpected — Like A Global Pandemic
“[I]f there is one thing military life isn’t, it’s boring,” says McCaffrey. “You learn very quickly to have plans a, b, c, and d for any possible situation, and then backup plans for your backup plans.” This, she says, is particularly useful during events like the coronavirus outbreak.
Military families are well-versed in what it means to do their part for a mission — like the calls from city governments to practice social distancing, says McCaffrey — but having to ask for help is the harder mentality to adopt.
“Military culture is unusual in the sense that spouses tend to pride themselves on being resilient, independent, and self-reliant,” says McCaffrey. “Many spouses I know struggle with asking for help when they need it, myself included, but when situations arise that remind us of our collective experience, we band together.”
Bergoo, who has a 4-year-old and a 6-month-old, says when you’re stationed far away, your base friends become your family. She says people have been running errands for each other, leaving food for families stuck at home because they’re not feeling well or just got back from a trip overseas, and even volunteering to walk each other’s dogs. “Meal trains are also a great way to show you care,” she says.
Military life has also prepared her family for the coronavirus pandemic in another way: Her children already love FaceTime playdates. “Military kids leave friends behind every time we move, and we get creative with how to keep them in touch [with their friends],” says Bergoo.
Preparing For Coronavirus Means Taking Cues From The Community
McCaffrey looks to her “collectively minded” civilian peers in her host country, where Chancellor Angela Merkel said around 70% of the population could get coronavirus.
“I have observed our German neighbors calmly and quickly adjusting,” says McCaffrey, who sees people walking their dogs while at least six feet away from others, leaning out of apartment windows to chat with neighbors from a distance, and running errands independently, never in groups. In the United States, local municipalities have closed businesses and even parks to compel social-distancing practices, but social media and other kinds of peer pressure help reinforce the message to stay at home.
In Japan, Bergoo says wearing face masks and not shaking hands were already common cultural practice before the coronavirus hit, and feels better knowing she’s a part of a larger community that exists off-base where these measures are already the norm. (In the U.S., severe face mask shortages have led public officials to discourage their use by anyone not actively sick.)
“Swimming classes, ballet classes, and group activities have been cancelled,” Bergoo says. “The truth is that no one wants to be patient zero, because on-base it will spread really quick.”
How Military Families Talk To Children About The Coronavirus
McCaffrey and her husband regularly talk to their children “about doing their part for the group” as part of living on-base. Now, that means bringing them into conversations about the coronavirus. “Our job [as parents] is not to scare them but to empower them with information about what they can do to keep themselves and others healthy,” she says. “I am immunocompromised, so we have to be especially careful with washing hands and disinfecting, but letting fear and anxiety take over is no way to live. If we are anxious, they will be anxious.”
Bergoo’s 4-year-old goes to an off-base preschool where the children have been informed about the coronavirus pandemic. “I talked to some moms in the U.S., and they are not really telling their young kids about the situation, but here, we are keeping it honest for our kids.”
How Military Families Are Planning To Stay Strong Through The Months Ahead
For now, Bergoo says she takes comfort in the “great community here in Japan where everyone is always willing to help everyone.” She hopes Americans will remember that right now, everyone’s job is just to “take care of each other” — which means following protocols to help stop the spread of the virus.
McCaffrey hopes that, whether military or civilian, American families understand that if “we can see past cultural differences and let go of identity politics on both an American and global scale,” she says, “we’ll make it through this situation and come out stronger on the other end.”
If you or someone you’ve been in close contact with appears to have shown or be showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, visit the NHS website in the UK to find out the next steps you should take, or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.