International Day of Families: ‘Virtual families’ are important sources of support during COVID-19 lockdown, says UP lecturer

Posted on May 14, 2020

How natural is it to regard family as a haven of primary fulfilment and safety. On 23 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days with effect from 27 March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon receiving the news, many South Africans bought food in bulk to feed their families. Airports and roads were busy as people tried to catch the last flight or bus to be home with their families during the lockdown. Even though the majority of people managed to return “home”, not all families were able to reunite before the lockdown began, and the prospect of a “virtual family” became the likely norm.

In this crisis, we ask ourselves again, who is our family and what role do they play in our lives? We usually define families as people we are connected to through blood relations (biology, kinship and lineage), living arrangements (such as sharing living spaces), legal ties (adoption, marriage) or relational proximity (relationships). We connect to these different types of family members emotionally, and relate to each one of them differently. Although there are different levels of relating and interacting with each other, the examples mentioned above all have one thing in common; that is, contributing to our general well-being and happiness.

The national lockdown, however, forced us to redefine not only how we connect with our family members but also who we connect with. This has created a need for “virtual families” and “face-to-face contact families”. Virtual families include immediate, extended family and friends, that are either not living with each other in the same space or have been separated as a result of the lockdown, but have become dependent on each other for thriving and well-being. These are family members who reside outside the country or within the same country, province or town. One can only interact with them through virtual modes of communication such as WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype and many other social media platforms during the lockdown. Face-to-face contact families include immediate family members, parents, children, or community members living in the same space or under the same roof.

These types of family connections play a significant role during the lockdown. The new realities and experiences of the pandemic have created new needs and challenges as well as coping strategies grounded in how we relate and interact with our families. For some, this is a difficult time which has required the rebuilding of relationships with estranged family members. For others, staying at home as a family under one roof has strengthened the bond among family members. We hear of many parents who spend more time with their children, play games, and monitor their online classes. This is something that the majority of working parents have never been able to do due to work constrains. We have also seen reconnection of virtual families, even the ones whom we have not been in contact with for a long time. Family members spend many hours interacting with each other on social media platforms in order to be informed of their well-being. Some religious families also send religious texts to comfort one another. Others send each other recipes so that family members try out a variety of dishes while staying at home. All these coping skills and the use of technology have created a conducive environment for enabling resilient family relations during the lockdown.

Taken together, the family forms a bedrock for buffering the effect of stress during this difficult time. Although there are many negatives created by the worldwide lockdown, such as economic hardships and many losing their jobs, there is a positive side in terms of family relationships. We need to take time to understand our interactions with one another, to build strong, solid relationships that will carry on even after the COVID-19 pandemic. Families thrive through supporting each other emotionally and economically and protecting vulnerable members. Above all, family relationships and interactions among family members influence every individual’s well-being. One can remain positive and live a healthy life knowing that they have strong family support.

The following recommendations could foster stronger family relationships:

  • Spend quality time together as a family.
  • Exercise together.
  • Parents can teach children outdoor games they used to play when growing up. This is fun as most of our children spend much time indoors on social media.
  • Try new recipes or watch movies together.
  • Parents can make concerted efforts to support their children’s mental well-being.

Above all, during this challenging period, remember: A family that plays together stays strong together and enhances a stable community that may enrich future generations.

Dr Shingairai Chigeza is a Lecturer and Research Psychologist in the University of Pretoria’s Department of Psychology. The International Day of Families is observed annually on 15 May as declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993.

- Author Dr Shingairai Chigeza

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