Opinion: will our reawakened awareness of family and community continue in a post-pandemic world?

For many of us, an unexpected outcome of lockdown and the pandemic has been a greater awareness of how much we need others, how much we give and receive family support and a rediscovery of our local community. This has also come with a reawakening of our necessity for the very basic things in life and what actually really matters. 

The media has rightfully focussed on the positive and negative social impact of the pandemic. Issues such as isolation, income and health concerns, uncertainly about the future and, notably for some families, the horror of domestic violence and abuse, have all come to the fore.

For some children and women in particular, 'lockdown' has meant ‘lockup’, where they are trapped with their perpetrators of harm. The true impact of this will probably only be known post pandemic, but increased use of helplines and significant increases in referrals to social work and mental health services can be expected.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Sarah Benson from Women's Aid on the huge increase in calls to their helpline during the pandemic

For others, lockdown is not the sole problem, but the pandemic is causing new stress. This can include issues such as caregiving for a family member with a disability, trying to cope with home-schooling for a child with a learning impairment, or being older, infirm and living alone.  

However, for most people, lockdown has perhaps taught them for the first time about Maslow's hierarchy of need, starting with our very basic need for food, warmth, shelter and safety. It's something which deserves some reflection.

For one and all, we must have food in our shops, a health system that can cope, and a police service to keep us safe, as well as other key services. This is vital to us. For the first time, we are aware and thankful of how much we depend on people who are employed to produce food in factories and on farms; those who distribute it and those who stack shelves and work at the checkout counter. As with nurses and hospital staff, they're now termed frontline heroes. 

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RTÉ Brainstorm video on the low-paid workers keeping Ireland open during the pandemic

We now know that work which was previously seen as less important or even disingenuously deemed ‘menial’, is now actually vital to our survival. For example, we appreciate those who work as refuse collectors are vital to us because they clear our refuse safely. When I was a child, this was a job that was referred to by some of  my teachers as unimportant and at the bottom rung of the career ladder. How untrue does that feel now? These workers and those on the frontline vital to our survival.  

For some of us, we may also be discovering our local community for the first time and we now know the name of the person who delivers our post. Although we have to avoid our neighbours while out walking (keeping two metres apart), we are ironically now closer to them than before by acknowledging each other, even if only by a knowing nod of solidarity.  

Similarly, the positive value of family through intergenerational connectivity is more valued if available and more upsetting if not. This is particularly so for those with mental health issues and for whom emotional connectivity is part of their daily diet. Positively, we have seen voluntary organisations like the GAA, Foroige, Age Action and many other community support bodies act as beacons of light over the last year.  

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in 2019, Cian McCormack meets young people engaging in acts of kindness as part of the Foróige project to make communities better places for citizens

Over 30 years ago, the then Irish government highlighted five fundamental principles for family and community functioning. This was done through the Commission on the Family Report in 1998, a major family policy report at the time. The first three principles continue to be truly tested in our current situation.

(i) Family life (in all its forms) ‘is a fundamental unit providing stability and well-being in our society

(ii) Caring and nurturing all members is key to family and community functioning

(iii) Continuity and stability are major requirements in relationships and within communities 

How much of this will we still value as important post pandemic life? Regardless of whether we continue to work from home when we have more choice, will we still value the unsung heroes in our communities? Will this experience of solidarity be forgotten? Will it be like 1946 when Dubliners went to country farms after the Second World War and helped save turf and crops in a collective meitheal community effort for social good?  This was a brilliant community initiative at the time, but now largely forgotten.  

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From RTÉ Archives, an excerpt from 1977's Harvest Emergency with volunteers and farmers talking about the harvest emergency of 1946, when thousands of volunteers joined with the nations's farmers to help salvage the harvest.

Alternatively, we could seek to ensure that we adopt the philosophy of a continued community of caring and learn from the great humanitarian, musician, and pioneer of children’s television Fred Rogers and his long running TV show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. While Rogers passed away in 2003, his philosophy lives on and was captured in the recent A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood movie starring Tom Hanks. Rogers believed in the resilience of the human spirit through empathy and compassion and said we needed to do three things to survive and thrive: be kind, be kind, and yes be kind. A useful message for us all. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ