The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of nurturing the family unit, having posed unprecedented challenges that profoundly affect families in diverse ways. While health consequences and financial well-being have been obvious and direct effects, the threat of being isolated and disconnected as a family is another key and not often mentioned risk.
COVID-19 is highlighting in stark terms the pervasive economic inequalities and the ongoing failure of systems and society to adequately address these (Motsei, 2020; Samatar, 2020). Families who were economically vulnerable long before the pandemic are struggling to earn an income, to provide food for an entire family, and are battling with the increased risk of exposure and the questionable ability to receive medical treatment and support (Patrick, Garwaite, & Power, 2020). This is particularly prevalent in Gauteng, where many older adults are breadwinners and the head of households of extended families (Parker & de Kadt, 2020).
Emotional and mental health effects of the pandemic stem from many sources and undoubtedly affect a family’s well-being. The possibility of impending illness in addition to caring for and managing quarantine requirements of an ill family member add to the general stress, fear, anxiety and uncertainty. These demands are compounded by parents trying to juggle work with the demands of a virtual workspace and playing the role of educator and child carer to one or more children of different ages. Essential service workers are also faced with solving an array of childcare dilemmas as they go to work; grandparents, who may take on childcare duties, may feel the strain of adding to the household illness risk and stress.
In addition, everyday routines as we knew them before the pandemic also seem hard to recall. Family routines are a cornerstone of family stability and contribute to family well-being and our quality of life. Predictable family routines increase child health and behaviour regulation, parental self-efficacy, satisfaction with family life and child academic achievement (Schlebusch, Samuels, & Dada, 2016).
Although it is hard to help families establish new routines given the lockdown restrictions, we need to grant families the space and grace to do so.
Employers, for example, may need to adjust their expectations of online availability and consider the strain parents are experiencing with their additional teaching duties. While the efforts of schools and other educational institutions to continue online learning is laudable, the added strain on families needs to be acknowledged, and they may need to adjust their expectations accordingly.
Informal support networks also play an important role in enhancing a family’s well-being and ability to function. Acknowledging the need for connectedness and finding ways to connect in meaningful new ways can contribute to alleviating some of the stress and isolation that families may experience. Religious and civil society groups may also be challenged to keep families connected to a bigger world and ensure that they offer various forms of support. Regrettably the digital divide will make some forms of online support inaccessible to all.
Another important strategy is for each one of us to take care of our own mental health – this is especially true for parents and adult family members. We must start by acknowledge feelings of loss, fear and anxiety, and take time to re-evaluate priorities and values. Faced with the loss of control and our own mortality, we may want to rethink how we spend our time, and whether we are truly investing in what matters.
Being loved and accepted unconditionally is a basic human need that is first fulfilled in the context of the family. In fact, close and positive relationships keep people happy and physically healthy, and seem to be a better predictor of health and happiness than socio-economic status, IQ or genetics (Mineo, 2017). While being cooped up with the family 24/7 can certainly create a lot of stress, it can also be an opportunity to reconnect, and to find new, meaningful family activities to experience membership and belonging.
To support families in poverty, economic relief in the form of social grants, unemployment insurance payouts and charitable donations administered through civic and religious organisations are certainly needed. But beyond the challenge of COVID-19, South African role-players need to reimagine the country’s economic strategies in a way that creates more equitable opportunities to support family stability and well-being (Samatar, 2020).
This includes emphasising individual and personal initiatives that can inspire our deepest human values such as compassion. Sadly, it seems we needed a pandemic to remind us all of our social responsibilities and how individual actions can support vulnerable members of society. The opportunity should not be wasted.
Mineo, L. (2017, April 11). Good genes are nice, but joy is better. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/
Mostsei, M. (2020, May 6). Maternal health and the Coronavirus. Daily Maverick. Retrieved from https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-06-maternal-health-and-the-coronavirus/
Parker, A., & de Kadt, J. (202, April 17). Gauteng's elderly in the context of COVID-19. Retrieved from https://gcro.ac.za/data-gallery/interactive-data-visualisations/detail/gautengs-elderly/
Patrick, R., Garthwaite, K., & Power, M. (2020, April 23). Researching COVID-19 and its impact on families: Some ethical challenges. Retrieved from https://discoversociety.org/2020/04/23/researching-covid-19-and-its-impact-on-families-some-ethical-challenges/
Samatar, A. (2020, April 23). 'COVID-19 is an extraordinary opportunity to turn the economic soil inside out' - UP academic on how government has a chance to rebalance livelihoods in SA. Retrieved from https://www.up.ac.za/faculty-of-humanities/news/post_2889917-covid-19-is-an-extraordinary-opportunity-to-turn-the-economic-soil-inside-out-up-academic-on-how-government-has-a-chance-to-rebalance-livelihoods-in-sa
Schlebusch, L., Samuels, A., & Dada, S. (2016). South African families raising children with autism spectrum disorders: Relationship between family routines, cognitive appraisal and family quality of life. Retrieved from https://repository.up.ac.za/handle/2263/53390
By Professor Kerstin Tönsing, Associate Professor and Programme Manager at the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication at the University of Pretoria. The International Day of Families is commemorated annually on 15 May.