First published in South Africa Today on 3rd May.

Families in a pandemic

Just over one year ago, South Africa went into one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in our efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 and to save lives. The impact of this lockdown over the last 13 months, across many areas, is well known and documented.

“However, perhaps one of the lesser documented or discussed consequences of the last year has been its impact on the family unit,” says  an.

“Our views on family have been significantly transformed over these last 13 months, with people valuing and longing for connection with others more than ever before,” continues Hildebrand. “Family are not just blood-tied. It’s those that you rely on and love the most. People feel stronger within these bonds and feel that they do not face the challenges alone.”

Whilst many have spent more time with their children and partners or spouses in more restricted social gatherings than ‘normal’, others have embraced technology to virtually fulfil their desire for relational connections and to offer support – be it in terms of caring, financial or just a sharing of lives. Says Hildebrand: “The positive benefit is the rediscovery of each other as people, as a result of intentionally spending time talking and sharing life and fears. Many have found their relationships deepened and more valued as a result of this unusual season.”

However, continues Hildebrand, this time has also showed the weaknesses within families, emphasising disconnects and any lack of healthy relationship practices that existed. In addition, increased substance abuse and domestic violence is of grave concern and, so too, is the constant struggle to find a workable and realistic work/ life balance – more prevalent in the last year than ever before. This has been further compounded by a lack of online resources for some, or assistance with childcare, and other needs, that an easily accessible, extended family is able to offer.

“Reorganising families and changing roles will be part of the changes we should expect in the new normal,” says Hildebrand. South Africa is a highly family-orientated society where family is not just seen as two parents and their children. Extended families are seen as the core family group and they actively engage and assist, if possible.

“This sense of family identity has been strained with social isolation and economic pressure over this time, with the separation of Covid-19 severely hurting the older population,” continues Hildebrand. “Their lack of mobility and being high risk, has meant that their forced isolation has had to be even more adhered to. The lack of touch between old and young is a harming factor that we will see the consequences of for many years as it effects formative development in the young and emotional well-being and longevity in the older generation.”

For many, as mentioned above, work boundaries have also been compromised. There has been a belief that people are available outside of work hours to respond to demands and requests. Says Hildebrand: “The fear of losing one’s job makes this compromise happen easier. The family has priority, I believe, but the management of schooling needs and work demands on the same devices and in the same time frame has made it very hard and emotional/mentally demanding.”

For some, working from home has the benefit of flexibility and adaptability to home demands and recreational activities have been altered in line with the restrictions of Covid-19 to encourage families to spend more time outdoors and in open spaces.

But a large proportion of the population does not have access to digital infrastructure, decent signal or are able to afford South Africa’s high data costs. “We need to be cognisant of the vast inequalities that the pandemic has highlighted in South Africa, and that there are millions of people who do not have access to the digital platforms which have become so essential to maintaining positive connectivity during this time,” says Hildebrand.

Not only is this damaging to those seeking employment during a time when most work requires these tools, but it also leads these individuals to feel even more isolated from their loved ones in comparison to those who are fortunate enough to have the digital tools to communicate often.

Teenagers, however, have been even more drawn to digital entertainment. Says Hildebrand: “We are seeing a challenge in drawing their attention back to schooling needs and face to face social engagement with their families. Whilst digital communications may be less complex and ‘easier’, we are seeing more and more anxious children with social anxiety as a result of this practice. It is difficult to get them to put family first as they strive to maintain a social link with a peer group and fear the consequences if they do not keep that connection.”

At the same time, there have also been beneficial consequences to the various restrictions on movement.  Says Hildebrand: “I sincerely hope we learn to value and prize the relationships that surround us more. We hopefully learn to speak well of each other, that kindness becomes the norm in our engagements at home and that the rebirth of family makes us resilient and confident, adding to lives well lived, even under very difficult situations.”

Some of tips for family engagements and connections are listed below:

Engagement and communications that connect:

Besides calls and conversations at home, meet in gardens, through windows, family walks, hiking with friends and picnics in open spaces. Touching each other’s lives with sharing and caring behaviours; words being the easiest way to impart comfort and belonging. Emails and calls or moments sitting on your child’s bed or playing a board game. Most family members have a deficit in the need for time and affection from those around them. The increased demands of life mean they need each other on an emotional level more than usual.

Share your life experiences with those that are more restricted than yourself, let them enjoy the story of the camping weekend you went on, seeing the beauty through the shared story. Listen to each other concerns. Intentionally choose to tell those in your life of life experiences and don’t remain silent and withdrawn.

Actively engage in community forums/groups in a safe manner. Belonging to churches and faith-based groups builds up emotional ‘feel-goods’.

Behaviours that support:

Share our resources with others in need and do so with dignity and grace. Cooking a double portion meal and dropping off a cooked meal to someone who would appreciate the domestic support or provision in a time of need. Checking in with our ‘people’ to know if they are ok or in need.

Ask how one can help and be aware of other’s needs.

Have fun:

Create opportunities to tell funny family stories, play games, watch movies together or have fun meals together. Eating together is a bonding experience. Enjoy nature. Laugh. Tease.


Paula Hildebrand has been a clinical social worker in private practice since 2006. She is currently the Chairperson of the Social African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice.

Working with all ages, she specializes in assisting with the life challenges that people face. With additional qualifications in family therapy, couple counselling and play therapy, Paula finds fulfilment in helping people find their own life solutions. A special interest is grief counselling and Paula also consults to business people on stress management and conflict resolution.

Paula’s aim is to assist people in building lives that they are proud of and secure in as well as helping them to navigate severe trauma and adversity to a place of courage.

Married for over two decades, Paula has two adult children and now lives in Johannesburg, having moved to the city from the seashores of the Eastern Cape.