GOING by social media or the radio, it could seem like the biggest problems faced by many during the Covid-19 lockdown have been how to perfect a sourdough starter or how many episodes of Tiger King to watch per night.
But for families already facing financial, housing or other societal pressures, lockdown can cause additional stresses.
The manager of an early intervention programme for hundreds of children and parents on Cork’s Northside has expressed her concerns for how the families she works with are coping with the Covid-19 restrictions.
Katherine Harford is Programme Manager with Young Knocknaheeny, an area-based childhood (ABC) programme focused on ensuring children have the best possible start to life in areas of the Northside where parenting can present additional challenges due to historic inequalities and deprivation.
Katherine says she has “many and varied” concerns for how the families she works with are coping with Covid-19 restrictions.
“We have to wonder what it must be like for families who don’t have access to internet or home computing, of which there are quite a number,” Katherine says.
“How do they engage when everything’s gone online, including our programmes and school programmes?”
Young Knocknaheeny is one of 12 ABC programmes in Ireland that supports families to give children the best possible start in life by focusing on the social, emotional and physical development of babies and children from pre-birth to school age.
Prior to the Covid-19 restrictions, Young Knocknaheeny’s team of 12 was providing one-on-one home visits for around 100 families, while an additional 200 families availed of parenting groups in the community.
But social distancing guidelines have changed Young Knocknaheeny’s hands-on approach for now.
The organisation quickly turned to a combination of online and phone support, as well as posting additional parenting resources on their social media and YouTube.
They’ve also arranged deliveries of activity packs, postcards and even Easter Eggs.
“Overnight, everything changed completely from the announcement that the restrictions were being put in place,” Katherine says.
“It’s intuitively difficult for us not to be present in the community and not to be in physical contact with people, so we found it very difficult in the beginning, but we adapted.”
Now, Young Knocknaheeny’s team members are providing phone and video call services for 120 families, with emotional support, child development guidance and strategies for coping. One staff member has been redeployed to Covid-19 testing, meaning that a staff of 11 are now providing services.
Katherine says she’s aware of multiple additional stresses for some of the families she is in contact with.
“There are people living in a small house with multiple generations in the same house,” she says.
“Granny might be needing to cocoon, but you’ve got small children who need to play. Some families might not have access to a garden.
“If there are underlying tensions in a house, that can be exacerbated because there are adults at home who’ve been furloughed, so there can be financial pressures. There might be people sharing rooms, making it very hard to self-isolate. There might be parents with underlying illnesses.
“For others, it might be parenting alone and losing the social network that you rely on because of the restrictions. There are families that have anxieties around the change to services, who are wondering what will happen to them and their children, and when services will resume.”
With uncertainty about how measures to ease social distancing will be rolled out, Young Knocknaheeny are exploring alternatives for re-introducing their parenting groups and other community activities. They may be able to take place but in smaller numbers, or they too may move online. But again, Katherine has concerns that families may slip through the net if they don’t have access to technology.
Katherine’s concern about the families without internet access or a computer to access services that have moved online are well-founded.
More than half of households in some areas of the Northside have no home computer and rates of internet connectivity are low compared with other areas of Cork city and county, Cork Healthy Cities report revealed in 2018.
While 21% of households city-wide have no internet access, this jumps to 30% in Knocknaheeny, 35% in Farranferris and 42% in Gurranebraher, the report, compiled with CSO data from 2016, revealed.
Lone parenting in lockdown can be particularly isolating, and reports of single parents being turned away from supermarkets prompted the Department of the Taoiseach to clarify last week that some families may need to shop with children. Katherine welcomes the announcement.
“There may be reasons why families must go shopping together in small groups: perhaps someone is parenting alone or doesn’t have a social network or might have underlying factors at home,” Katherine says. “Everyone needs to wonder what it’s like for other people and to take a minute before judging others.
“We should give people a bit of a break and we should be practising empathy.”
For all the challenges presented by the Covid-19 restrictions, Katherine says, it’s been inspiring to see a community face adversity together.
“For everything that could be perceived as a negative, there’s a very strong sense of pride and identity and even in this situation you can see people coming together to support each other,” Katherine says.
“There’s a wonderful community response and I’m not sure if everyone has sight of that.
“Volunteers and neighbours and post offices and schools have an underlying response going on. It’s not perfect, and everyone’s just doing the best they can, but it’s been quite incredible to see it and be a part of it in a small way.”
For the longer-term economic impacts caused by the Covid-19 restrictions, Katherine says this community resilience will be a vital resource.
“There’s been this ‘we’re all in this together’ expression going around, but I would hope that we all come out of it together,” Katherine says.
“Yes, the pandemic affects everybody and knows no bounds, but some will be more impacted in the long term than others, as we saw in the last recession. There’s an opportunity here, because we’ve learned a different way of working. I hope that solidarity and togetherness carries forward.”
With the road map to exiting Covid-19 restrictions now in place, Young Knocknaheeny are now exploring ways of continuing to offer services with social distancing in mind, but also balanced against the barriers to participation some of their families face.
“We don’t want to lose the importance of relationships and interaction as key principles of our work,” Katherine says.