Monday, 3 August 2020

In the Shadow of a Pandemic: Harare's Street Youth Experience COVID-19

Janine Hunter has worked as a Researcher on Growing up on the Streets since January 2013 at the University of Dundee. She is also in the first year (part-time) of a PhD on the love relationships of street youth in Accra, Ghana.

The cover image for the story map shows (L-R): Jude, Ralph, Jojo, Madnax, Mathew. The photo was taken by Nixon. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has had unprecedented impact on all our lives. In Zimbabwe, where two-thirds of the population live in poverty (World Food Programme, 2019), lockdown has exacerbated water and food shortages and seen curfews, roundups and forced removal of young people living on the streets. Growing up on the Streets research project has been working with Street Empowerment Trust (SET) and a network of street youth there since 2012; we knew how hard conditions were there under normal circumstances, how much harder would it be under COVID-19 lockdown?

In the Shadow of a Pandemic: Harare's Street Youth Experience COVID-19 ( is freely available ‘story map’, launched on 30 June. Made with visual data recorded by street youth in Harare, it includes films, photos and details of lives lived on the streets under lockdown.

In late May and early June 2020, street youth collected the videos, images and stories around the low income settlements, alleyways and areas of disused land around Harare where young people eke out a living in the informal economy, for example collecting and selling plastics – earning them less than half a pence (GBP) per kilo. The story map includes the story of Mai Future, a young pregnant woman who shows us the shelter she has put together on wasteland where she and her young child live; Denford, who demonstrates how he and his friends sleep in a new socially distanced manner, no longer able to huddle together for warmth; and Zviko, who cooks up mopani worms in discarded paint tins used as cooking pots. 

“Our earning has reduced… Help us get jobs, and help us with food.” 16-year-old Mada describes life under COVID-19 lockdown in Harare. Still image from a film recorded by Yeukai. 

Making the story map was challenging for participants, because ongoing curfews meant that street youth weren’t supposed to be in the city centre at all; groups were confined to the secret alleyways or ‘bases’ (effectively their homes) or in the low income settlements outside the centre. Unable to move across the city, different participants captured visual data in the areas they lived, on a borrowed mobile phone.

The story map is a Zimbabwe–UK collaboration; Shaibu Chitsiku from SET worked with street youth in Harare to capture the visual material; while at the University of Dundee (which provided ethical approval as well as the licenced web application), the visual and context data were edited and the online resource created using ESRI’s ArcGIS StoryMaps.

Harare was one of three cities (alongside Accra, Ghana and Bukavu, DRC) in the Growing up on the streets research project, which took place between 2012-2016 and involved 229 core participants and hundreds more in networks and focus groups. Growing up on the streets legacy funding from Backstage Trust enabled the 24 street youth (9 of whom were original participants) to visually capture what life is like on the street as young women and men try to survive under COVID-19 lockdown in Harare.

Growing up on the Streets original methodology used a capability approach, drawing on Sen (1999) and Nussbaum (2000), where participants defined their own capabilities on the street and are seen as experts in their own lives. The project aims remain – to change the discourse around street children and youth and their right to make lives of value while living on the street. This story map is a continuation of that approach, and a unique and timely resource on how the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns are experienced by homeless young people living in urban poverty.

It’s the project’s second story map; in 2017 the University of Dundee Stephen Fry Award funded an online showcase created with street youth in Accra, Growing up on the Streets: A Story Map by Accra’s Street Youth includes sections built around the ten capabilities the street children and youth had defined as key to their lives. Other outputs from which are freely available online include Briefing Papers in English and French and the award-winning Knowledge Exchange Training Pack.

The films from the Harare story map are available on YouTube on the Growing up on the Streets channel. After seeing the final result, Shaibu said: “I participated in the collection of the pictures and videos, so I obviously have more information about the happenings and context; however, the story moved me, even though I was there when it was created. My verdict is ‘bolato’! (It’s great!)”

The story map was created by Growing up on the Streets:

Participants and visual creators: Arnold, Claude, Denford, Fatso, Fungai, Henzo, Jojo, Jonso, Jude, Mada, Madnax, Mai ‘Future’, Mathew, Mavhuto, Ndirege, Nixon, Ralph, Ranga, Tarwirei, Taurai, Tobias, Tonderai, Yeukai, Zviko. Please note all names are pseudonyms, chosen by the participants.

Project Manager, Harare: Shaibu Chitsiku, Street Empowerment Trust, Harare, Zimbabwe. Story map editing, construction: Janine Hunter, Geography, University of Dundee, UK. Film editing, subtitles: Victor Maunzeni, Street Empowerment Trust, Harare, Zimbabwe. Directors of Growing up on the Streets: Professor Lorraine van Blerk, University of Dundee, UK; Dr Wayne Shand, EDP Associates, UK; and the late Fr Patrick Shanahan, StreetInvest.

NGO Partner: StreetInvest, UK. Funding: Backstage Trust, UK.


Nussbaum, M.C. (2000). Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

World Food Programme (2019). Country Brief. WFP Zimbabwe, January 2019.

Monday, 27 July 2020

'Doing friendship' at a distance

Rachel Benchekroun is a PhD candidate at UCL’s Institute of Education, where she is exploring the role of social networks in relation to belonging and social support for mothers with insecure immigration status in London. She is currently undertaking a separate small-scale study looking at the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on public sector professionals’ social and support networks and wellbeing. This blogpost draws on early findings from this study in relation to friendship practices.

‘Friends are there for each other – they provide support in times of need and crisis. You can bounce ideas off each other, hang out and have fun. That’s what’s really missing at the moment.’ (Marie)

Friendships are valued as a form of exchanging social support – information, resources and mutual confiding – and for the enjoyment of taking part in activities together, sharing humour and having fun. These diverse ways of ‘doing friendship’ contribute to our sense of self and belonging.

Whilst friendships are ‘chosen’ and voluntary in nature, they are patterned by social location and context (Allan and Adams 2006). Covid-19 and lockdown have largely confined us to our homes, transforming the spaces in which friendship practices can take place. How – and how effectively – can we ‘do friendship’ at a distance?

At the end of April, I began a small-scale qualitative study with public sector professionals living in London to explore how lockdown is affecting family, friendship and wider relationship practices, and how these are shaping individuals’ sense of self and wellbeing in this time of intense change and pressure. 11 participants, from fields including education, health, social care and early childhood services, have been keeping diaries and have engaged in regular reflective conversations with me. Here, I share some findings on changes to friendship practices.

Social support from a distance

In the early weeks of lockdown, participants reported increases in instant messaging (checking in, sharing videos and memes) and a surge in video calling, indicating efforts to share social support virtually. These forms of communication offer alternative ways of connecting with local friends, more frequent contact with those who live at a distance, and a rekindling of friendships in need of nurturing. Even the traditional phone call seems to have enjoyed a resurgence. Participants also found ways to share more physical micro acts of care, from sending cards to distant friends, to baking cakes for a neighbour, and popping round to a local friend to take a birthday gift – and having a chat from two metres.

‘Cosy cardigans’

My research suggests that old friendships are resilient to the constraints of lockdown. Career-related mobility has meant that ‘old’ friends are often geographically distant, so meeting up is typically infrequent. Sean described his closest friendships as ‘quite low maintenance’, commenting ‘we’ll just slip into a relationship like a cosy cardigan’.

For some, in fact, engaging with old-but-distant friends has become more frequent, with Covid-19 and lockdown precipitating contact, and online video platforms – combined with the flexibility of working from home – reducing the barriers to socialising usually posed by distance, childcare needs or living in different time zones. 


Shared activities

Participants’ diaries and their reflections in dialogue suggest that local friends, work colleagues and co-members of wider groups tend to play a more significant role in our everyday practices. With lockdown confining most people to home for all or most of the time, friendship practices at the local level seem to have been affected the most.

For many participants, ‘doing friendship’ means engaging in activities together – from organized sporting, creative, cultural or faith-related activities, to going for walks or to the pub. Doing activities together is significant not only because of the physical and mental health benefits of the activity itself, but the sociability of doing it with friends. Facing lockdown, many such activities have shifted online: friends are meeting up for yoga classes, book clubs, quizzes, church services and prayer groups via Zoom, YouTube or What’s App; members of running clubs have paired up with ‘running buddies’ and friends are going on virtual cultural tours of cities. Meeting up for a drink has been replaced by online coffee breaks or evening get-togethers with a bottle of wine on the sofa. Friends are learning to crochet and bake bread together in virtual sessions, taking advantage of the greater flexibility of working from home.

Limitations of doing friendship online

Whilst online technology has been broadly embraced as a means of reaching out to friends since the start of lockdown, participants in the study also identified challenges of ‘doing friendship’ from a distance. As the weeks have gone by, the novelty of regular get-togethers via Zoom was beginning to lose its appeal for some. Maintaining the motivation to go running or cycling without friends being physically present has proved tricky at times. The intensity and immobility of conversations in two dimensions and the struggles to read body language have made communication more effortful and less natural.

Most participants had shifted to working from home since lockdown; for many, spending whole days at home in online meetings could be draining. The need for a change of scene and distance from the screen was not met by socialising online. There was concern that not responding rapidly to a message from a friend who knows you are at home could be interpreted as being unsupportive. Moreover, trying to decipher what kind of support a friend wants from you via a What’s App message could be tricky. As Hannah commented, ‘I’m so tired of every single interaction being via technology.’

Missing the texture of the everyday

For participants, as public sector professionals, in-person interactions with local friends and colleagues constituted the texture of day-to-day life before lockdown, and were therefore often the most missed now they were working from home. There was a widespread sadness about the lack of banter with colleagues. Participants missed the spontaneous chats in the kitchen or the opportunity to pop into the office next door to run an idea past a colleague. As Hannah remarked, ‘They might not be the deepest friendships, but they definitely provide the greatest texture to life - and life is rather bland right now!’ Margot yearned for ‘the jokes – the silly stuff you say and people laugh’, and Joy hankered for ‘socialising with colleagues, teaching the kids, the banter… the non-verbal communication.’

This may be acutely felt by individuals living alone. As Sarah observed:

If you live with someone you can have that level of casual, non-intense company. If you’re on your own […] there’s no background company. […] In a way, if you live on your own, work is the place where you have that background company.

The physical contact of day-to-day interactions is often missed too, particularly for those who see themselves as being ‘tactile’ or ‘a hugger’. Showing affection or communicating emotions through physical gestures is often self-affirming. Not being able to talk in person or communicate with a hug can be felt deeply, affecting individuals’ sense of self.

When I receive a hug, I feel loved, I feel welcomed, I feel part of something, I belong, I feel significant. If it wasn’t for [my daughter] I think I’d feel really isolated. When I couldn’t hug [my best friend], I felt real disappointment – I felt that something was missing. Saying goodbye [without a hug] feels incomplete. It’s like a full stop! (Joy)

The prospect of physical distancing being a reality for months to come was a sobering thought for some. Sean missed seeing people in three dimensions, and felt ‘disconsolate’ about the possibility of an ‘end to physicality’.

Emotional regulation

Day-to-day in-person interactions – the everyday conviviality of spaces of work and leisure – are often crucial in regulating emotions, helping to defuse worries or negative feelings by offering an alternative perspective or simply through distraction. Working from home, or being furloughed, disrupts these micro interactions. This may be experienced as the flattening of positive emotions and the heightening of negative ones. For many participants, not being able to participate in activities in person with friends can affect wellbeing, especially when work may not be providing the structure or sense of purpose that it previously did.

Looking forward

My research is revealing the extent to which individuals are resourceful and creative and are finding ways of ‘doing friendship’ from a distance in a ‘flattened’ world. But it is vital to recognise the significance of the physicality and texture of everyday interactions, and the potential impact of the temporary loss of these. As we look ahead to the prospect of long-term physical distancing in our everyday lives, we need to consider the challenges of being physically isolated from friends and colleagues, and to find ways to protect subjective wellbeing.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Why we need to listen to families in fuel poverty about smart meters

Fiona Shirani is a Research Associate based in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. She currently works on the interdisciplinary FLEXIS project.


Fuel poverty is a pressing issue, one likely to be magnified by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Many households will increase their energy use through spending more time at home at the same time as incomes may be reduced. Smart technology has been positioned by developers and government as potentially able to alleviate fuel poverty, yet there has been little consideration of how it is perceived and experienced by those who are susceptible to fuel poverty (or ‘energy vulnerable’). It is important that the everyday experiences of people who are energy vulnerable inform policy measures designed to target these households. In our ongoing research we are taking a qualitative longitudinal approach (where we interview the same people on several occasions at different time points) to explore some of these issues in more detail. . Our research case site is an ex-mining community in the South Wales Valleys that scores highly on a number of measures of deprivation. The case site is also the location of a planned geothermal district heating scheme, due to be constructed in 2021, which has the potential to change local relationships to energy. Participants are local residents aged between their early 20s and late 70s.

Why is this a family and relationships issue?

There have been calls for research concerning families and relationships to be more attentive to broadly environmental issues, including sustainability and climate change. We know that in order to meet government decarbonisation goals and climate change targets there will need to be changes to the way we use energy. Therefore, to inform these changes, it is important to understand people’s current relationships to energy in their everyday lives. Drawing on our background of work that highlights the importance of ‘linked lives’, our current research advocates a relational approach to understanding energy use and vulnerability. Central to this is the role of energy in expressing care for others, often focussed on prioritising the needs of children. Our research showed how participants often restricted their energy use due to concerns about cost but that some level of energy use was regarded as essential, particularly where young children were concerned. This was evident across households and not just where children were permanent residents (for example, grandparents saving use of central heating for when their grandchildren visited). This highlights the importance of an approach that accounts for wider relationships and expectations of care in understanding energy vulnerability, which a families and relationships lens can offer.

The notion of enhanced user control of technology (including remote control) is described as an important feature of smart technology. Whilst this may offer benefits for particular consumers – particularly those with limited mobility – it also raises important issues in terms of control dynamics within households as in-home display units depicting energy use give rise to increased opportunities for monitoring. This was often raised in jovial terms by our participants who described smart technology as enabling partners to ‘check up’ on them. However, the potential for surveillance of different household members’ energy use raises important questions regarding the broader issue of control as relational.

Research Insights

Our research shows how people’s experiences with smart meters appear to have led many to be somewhat sceptical about the benefits of installing new smart technologies in households. Whilst some participants found their smart meters helpful, many found that it did not impact on their everyday routines and energy use. This was largely because participants appeared to be very conscious of their energy use as they could not afford to be otherwise given their limited incomes. Assertions that energy providers could use technology to tell participants something that they did not already know were met with scepticism or even deemed offensive. Some participants described the meter as a token gesture, doing nothing to tackle the causes of their energy vulnerability and several participants were resistant to having smart meters installed.

[i]t’s not going to help somebody that can’t afford to buy it in the first place. If you haven’t got ten pound to buy your electric, a smart meter’s neither here nor there. (‘Carole’, 60s, Interview 3)

By interviewing people on multiple occasions, we have been able to elucidate how people’s relationships to smart technologies change over time. Several of our participants had smart meters or other technologies installed during the course of our research. Whilst this was often initially met with enthusiasm, we were able to see how this waned over time as participants described how ‘the novelty wore off’. Our research has also indicated concerns about how feelings of confidence and competence in using smart technology have the potential to exacerbate existing generational divides. Such concerns highlight the possible isolation of older consumers as an important issue that needs to be addressed to avoid worsening circumstances for vulnerable groups. These findings raise challenges for the perceived inevitability of the smart energy transition, particularly the planned national rollout of smart meters and schemes targeting vulnerable consumers.

Going forward

We are continuing to undertake annual interviews in this community case site to consider if and how relationships to energy change alongside developments in technology (such as the planned geothermal heating scheme) as well as personal life course changes. Interviews will also provide an opportunity to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on participants’ everyday lives and energy use. Our work in this area has already been drawn on in a policy context and we aim for further insights from these ongoing detailed accounts concerning the lived experiences of vulnerable consumers to continue to inform policy development. Our research illustrates the relevance of a families and relationships perspective for energy research.

This blog highlights some of the insights from our recent publication:

Shirani, F. Groves, C. Henwood, K. Pidgeon, N. and Roberts, E. ‘I’m the Smart Meter’: Perceptions and experiences of smart technology amongst vulnerable consumers. (2020) Energy Policy. 144.

For more information on the publication or to find out more about our work, contact:

Monday, 13 July 2020

Educating Children During & After Covid-19, Opportunity for Change?

Chelle Oldham is employed by Glasgow University and is completing her PhD with UWS. Chelle has worked in education for over 20 years and her career spans each age range and phase of development and learning.

Educating Children During & After Covid-19, Opportunity for Change?

When in January 2020 I first heard about a virus sweeping through China, I rolled into a big branded pharmacy and bought the last 2 remaining anti-viral hand-sanitiser. These types of items were already flying off the shelves. Those of us purchasing at that time would most likely be the ones preparing for a pandemic, we at best guessed the virus would be here very soon, and at the worst, hoping it wasn’t already. I am an able single mother who happens to use wheels instead of my legs, with a handful of pre-existing conditions and a history of pneumonia and sepsis; I have to be prepared. I’d got this!

Fast forward 4+ months and I’m lucky enough to be sitting in my garden watching my chickens potter around in 25degree sunshine. Yes, I am one of those few million people having to shield from the world, but I am also extremely grateful that I live with more than my fair share of grass, garden, and woodland; enough for my 4 children to disappear all day and never meet another soul in passing. I chose this property because I also home educate my 4 children and outdoor space for learning is essential for our educational ideology. My background as a Principal Lecturer and Educational Leader started with Early Years and Primary Schooling, I hold all 4 teaching certificates and train teachers as well as nursery leaders, childminders, and school staff. Despite my training plus my practical experience of over 20 years, I still stumbled with our new home learning a few times when lockdown began. Even for experienced home educators, the lockdown of 2020 has taken a while to get used to. No field trips, no extra curricula classes, no more leaving the property.

I follow several individuals on Instagram, take part in some Facebook groups and do small consultations when asked to do so, and I cannot help but feel empathy for the millions of parents who have desperately attempted to continue their children’s education from home without training, without very much guidance and occasionally without any support from their child’s school. I mean, let's face it, we do not train our teachers in basic brain development let alone training them in how to support parents in the home environment during a global pandemic! Teachers have been thrown in at the deep end with many hundreds managing to teach face to face online; our parents have been thrown in even deeper, with many thousands managing to maintain something resembling school from home.

In the first few days of lockdown, parents were asking for help online for things such as “How do I create a timetable?” and “How many subjects should I cover in one day?”. There were videos of families who still got children out of bed at 7 am to ensure ‘classes’ could start promptly at 9 am. Some families posted images of their meticulously drawn timetable for each morning, afternoon and day of the week; no one would be allowed to end the day before 3 and after school activities were replaced by PE in the garden. Before the week was out more parents were posting questions such as “How long should a math’s lesson be?” and “Can lunch be longer than a hour?”. By the beginning of week 2 posts were noticeably different in content and tone with parents asking “Would it be terrible if we just did a 3-day school week?” and “How do I juggle my 2yr old and my 7yr old when they need to learn completely different things?”.

I empathized immensely with all the parents who showed such resilience and determination when it came to the education of their children during a time we were unprepared for, and completely in shock because of COVID-19. I wasn’t however shocked when posts started to come through by the end of week 2 which highlighted just how much burnout parents were beginning to feel: “I give up!”, “That’s all folks! School has been put on a shelf”, “I Quit!”, “I have a newfound respect for teachers, we are on holiday early!”, “I’m not a teacher, I can’t do this!”. I don’t think any parent started lockdown thinking that education from home would be easy, maybe just easier. Not only has the lockdown offered parents insight into exactly what it is that is being taught to their children (evident in posts such as “Why are they teaching my 6 year-old what a noun phrase is?”) but parents are also left wondering why they can get through most of the school work in 2-3hrs – “What do they fill the remaining 3hrs with?”. Parents have in the main, left schooling up to school teachers, “They know best”, however, the lockdown for some parents has been life-altering. The pressure felt in school by some children has led to an epidemic in mental health concerns for children as young as 4. Parents are seeing this first-hand now that they are acting teachers. Parents are also observing the constraints put on a child who is being asked to undertake formal learning, correction, and development for 6 hours (7-8hrs in some places) every day. The parental response has been to start asking different questions as we move towards the 3rd the month of lockdown and restrictions. Questions such as “Can I carry on with home-schooling and not send them back?” and “Is there a difference between home-schooling and home education?” plus statements such as “I can’t believe how different he/she is! School is a thing of the past for us”. Where once parents felt that school was the one and the only option for education, now anecdotal evidence suggests that parents are debating whether or not to return their children to a system that hasn’t been updated since Queen Victoria was on the throne.

We must acknowledge that the background of a child’s primary carer has a significant impact on how ‘successful’ home-learning has been during the lockdown period. Dip your toe into some research undertaken around home education that occurred before lockdown and you do not have to go very far before realising a significant portion of the participants in that research were from a white, middle-class, predominantly female demographic; that is to say, even where a primary carer did not hold a degree or any engagement with higher education, they were still from a relatively affluent background. We know that these families take a greater interest in their children’s education, and we also know that these families are more willing to take a risk when it comes to our current system of education and their ability to do better. One parent of now grown children simply repeats “I wish I had known it was an option when I had N”. One area of home-based learning that remains under-researched is that of the transference of cultural capital from children to their parents. Many online comments and questions are posted by young, single mothers and families who have relocated to the UK in recent years. Whilst my research is ongoing, there is already anecdotal evidence that through the teaching of their children, parents and carers are making huge strides with their knowledge, learning, and understanding; arguably the cultural capital within the home could increase through the adoption of Home Education. It is likely, however, that to ensure this increase occurs, parents and carers forced into home learning during the lockdown, would need to persevere; they would need to see their child’s education as so valuable that individual parents and carers would need to source additional resources and teach themselves before teaching their children. The acquisition of new knowledge for adults who struggled themselves in schools is by no means a small task. For many, they would need to acknowledge their struggles with past schooling and move beyond any negative responses to acquire the new knowledge to then teach their child. This is a gigantic task for some.

For those of us who have been fighting to retain the right to educate our children from somewhere other than a school building, we have seen the biggest rise in online activities, including curriculum and BBC content since the internet began. The quality of resources is at an all-time high and some of us have been left to wonder why we couldn’t have had this level of support before a global pandemic brought our schools to their knees. Now that the Government have themselves demonstrated that education at home is a viable alternative to the school buildings, maybe Home Education can be included as a valid alternative to mainstream schooling in the same way that independent schooling, boarding schooling, Forest Schooling, and Montessori are seen as valid alternatives. At the very least it would be difficult for ministers to completely disregard education from home after this pandemic is over.

Since formal schooling became popular in the late 19th century we have not had an opportunity to research education in the home environment to the extent that we could be doing right now. Home education groups are justifiably cautious when asked to participate in research, however, we have millions of families across the UK who have home educated for the past few months, many of whom want to continue until September and many who are considering home education permanently. As a researcher looking at the value of education at home and how home education might impact a family’s education capital, I cannot help but watch the educational briefings with disappointment; surely as we send our children into schools in ‘bubbles’ of 6-8 children, as we re-organise the school day on a rota basis, halve the time spent in the school building and whilst there are calls to educate children outside to reduce risk, why haven’t we just taken this opportunity to restructure our outdated Victorian system of education? Why do we ever need to go back to a system that was originally designed to fill gaps in our industrial workforce and post-war economy?

If home education was sufficient for 3 months and then part-time schooling and blended learning is sufficient going forward, can we not keep our small class sizes and reduced hours (advocated by hundreds of educational researchers)? Can we not use this unique point in history to improve our system to the benefit of the next generation who will be the adults of tomorrow?

Education in the UK may never be the same again, let us embrace the change and create a modern system; we know which countries have a better education system and therefore happier, healthier children – can’t we adopt the best practice and then think outside the box? The adults of tomorrow will be fighting the next pandemic that our scientists tell us will arrive on our shores soon, we need creative agile minds that take risks and are resilient. Does the current system nurture those qualities? Home Educating families do not value education any less because they choose to use the back garden for Maths!

Monday, 6 July 2020

Family planning DURING COVID-19: A baby 'bust', not 'boom'.

This blog was originally posted on Centre for Reproduction Research on 3 June 2020 and the author Sasha Loyal, Research Fellow and Phd Student at De Monfort University, Leicester has kindly allowed it to be reposted here.

The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to have a significant impact on women’s and couples’ reproductive lives. Social distancing and ‘stay at home’ measures have already seen a significant disruption to fertility treatment, maternity services and access to family planning services, leading to concerns about how this will impact childbearing behaviours. 

At the start of lockdown, predictions of a looming ‘baby boom’ circulated COVID-19 commentary, sparking worry about how maternity services will cope in 9 months time. However, with the uncertainty this pandemic is continuing to fuel, conversations have now shifted towards a ‘baby bust’, with the new normal sparking fear in those who were planning to start a family, leading them to avoid having children during these unprecedented times. 

Questions of when to have children are socially shaped and decisions about conception are inherently relational and political. My PhD thesis [SL1] focuses on questions of reproductive timing and when women feel is the ‘right time’ to have children. It shows how women have a desire to accomplish several milestones before childbearing, including settling into a career, financial stability and having a home. However, the precarious economic environment that the coronavirus is continuing to generate is likely to affect the fulfilment of these conditions, considered by many as necessary to perform the role of parent. 

UK rates of unemployment are predicted to peak laer this year, and many companies have reduced income for employees working from home. The prediction of a recession is also likely to cause worry about future financial difficulties and to impact decisions around the timing of parenthood, for those who wish to conceive in more predictable times. Feeling psychologically ‘ready’ before having children was also a significant consideration for women in my study, however mental health services have seen a significant increase in calls[SL2] , with the pandemic impacting individuals’ sense of stability. 

While pregnant women do not seem to be at greater risk of coronavirus, this group were classed as ‘vulnerable’ as a precautionary measure by the UK government and advised to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Despite the guidance on coronavirus and pregnancy published by NHS[SL3] , RCOG[SL4] and others, it is too early to know the real implications for the outcomes for pregnant women who have had coronavirus and their babies, leading to greater concern about the health risks of conceiving during this time. 

The potential for social distancing measures to continue long-term, and worries of a second peak, may also provoke fears around the quality and amount of care pregnant women can expect to receive. NHS Trusts across the UK have taken varying measures to impede the spread of coronavirus including reduced face-to-face hospital appointments for pregnant women, cancellation of group antenatal classes and virtual NCT and postnatal classes where possible. These formal care systems and networking events represent key opportunities for the support of pregnant women, which are more important than ever during this time. 

Birth choices have also been disrupted with the suspension of homebirth services in some NHS Trusts, cancellation of planned c-sections and concerns about the presence of birth partners during labour. Pregnancy helplines have seen a rise in calls from anxious mothers-to-be[SL5] , worried and confused about the absence or reduction of maternity care. Isolated new mothers struggling with postpartum mental illnesses, which are likely to be amplified by the current pandemic, are also experiencing limited access to professional support services. [SL6] 

The suspension of fertility treatment has created a significantly distressing time for those who were just about to start or were in the middle of their journey of conceiving through assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). The ease of restrictions comes with hope and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) accounted the reopening of fertility clinics in May[SL7] . However, restrictions on treatment still apply in order to maintain safe care and practice for both staff and patients. 

The postponement of treatment has created significant time pressures, particularly for older patients whose chances of successful treatment are already lower. Speculation of a ‘baby boom’ assumes that women are able to get pregnant as they choose, but the pandemic has created a devastating blow for those who will have to wait longer for their chance to have a child. 

The extension of frozen egg, sperm and embryo storage from 10 years to 12 presents promising news and is a positive step for those whose plans to start a family have been delayed due to the pandemic. Yet it is hard to picture what it will be like in even two years from now, with predictions that the aftermath of coronavirus will be felt long-term. 

The disruption of reproductive lives this pandemic has caused has reaffirmed the need for the #ExtendTheLimit campaign for egg freezing[SL8] , to recognise factors that may lead women to have children later in life beyond their control. Time limits may pressure women to start fertility treatment before they are ready or make the difficult decision to destroy their eggs, even after the virus has stopped spreading but the economic and psychological impact could still be felt. 

This is a significant and worrying crisis for those struggling to access family planning services, and whilst there may be an increase of unplanned pregnancies due, in part, to the limited availability and choice of contraceptive options, recent predictions of a baby bust, not boom, may be the reality.

[SL2] [SL2]

Monday, 29 June 2020

Listening to young people during Covid-19 challenges common adult assumptions about their peer relationships

Thalia Thereza Assan is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research examines how friendships of adolescent girls shape and play out in their political participation.
The experiences and perspectives of children and young people are generally missing from coverage and discussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects. This is not a unique situation, as children’s status in society positions them as a marginalised group. In this blog post, I will focus on what children and young people’s experiences of and perspectives on their lives during Covid-19 can teach us about their peer relationships, and how these insights challenge common adult assumptions on these matters. While I present here mostly positive aspects of peer relationships and friendships, I am in no way advocating for an idealised conception of these relationships but rather for adopting a critical examination of how they are understood and discussed.

First, one of the biggest impacts of Covid-19 on children, young people and their parents/guardians has been the closure of schools and the move to online schooling. Here, much of the discussions has focused on how studies and academic progression have been disrupted and the challenges parents/guardians face in trying to balance work and child-care. While these are certainly important issues, turning our attention to how young people have experienced this situation reveals the importance of school as an arena to create and sustain peer relationships and friendships. World Vision International conducted a consultation with 101 children and young people from 13 countries on their views about the Covid-19 pandemic. The study was undertaken by 2 adults and 12 young people who served as peer researchers. The findings reveal that 71% of the children and young people felt isolated and lonely because of school closures. Additionally, the dwindling of their peer networks was one of the causes of the emotional distress 91% of the participants experienced.[1] In the words of Christopher, an 8-year-old research participant from Nicaragua: “The coronavirus affects me a lot because I cannot go out to play like before; I do not go to school or church. I miss my friends and classmates. All the boys and girls in the community and the country are affected.”.[2]

The significance of school for peer relationships brings to the fore the importance children and young people ascribe to face-to-face interactions and the physical and embodied aspects of their social ties. This flies in the face of the popular adult assumption, which is often imbued with a judgemental tinge, that young people’s relationships operate exclusively through technological means and in digital spheres. In an article which focuses on the harsh consequences of Covid-19 for adolescents, author Christopher Null confesses that when the shift to online schooling began, he did not think his high-school-aged daughter would be much effected: “My daughter spends the vast majority of her free time in her room, on her bed, staring at her phone. Would shelter-in-place be any different, aside from not going to school for a few hours a day?”. However, his daughter’s distress quickly became evident. After speaking to a dozen high school students about their experiences during lockdown, Null realised that among other things, they missed meeting their friends face-to-face in school.[3] 

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

Second, lockdown restrictions did mean that children and young people had to almost solely rely on technological means to interact with their peers and sustain their friendships during this time, which they sometimes did in innovative ways. Julie Beck interviewed a group of eight young people, aged 13-14, about the “PowerPoint Party” they initiated, where each of them prepared a slide presentation on a topic they were interested in and then presented it to each other via Zoom. Georgie Perello, 13, explained to Beck: “It’s a distraction from all that’s going on, and it’s not like we can really hang out with each other right now. This is a way to come together, in a different way—teaching instead of just talking.”.[4]

A group of high school seniors, whose final International Baccalaureate Social-Cultural Anthropology exams were cancelled, conducted a three-week-long auto-ethnography project of their lives during the quarantine.[5] Their findings highlight that while communication mediated through technology and social media was experienced as markedly different than face-to-face communication, it enabled continued interaction and showed how “humans rely on technological advancements in order to survive and thrive in our constantly adapting world”.[6] This positive framing of technology and social media in relation to relationships runs counter to adult condemnations of and/or moral panic over the harmful effects of technology on children and young people’s lives and relationships. It also implicitly shows that children and young people who do not have access to the internet and/or relevant technological devices are suffering not just academic-wise but also from the lack of contact with their friends and diminished opportunities for peer-support.

Finally, the implications of young people’s physical distancing from their friends have been discussed in various online articles aimed at parents.[7] While many of these articles acknowledge the importance of friendship for adolescents, a few implicitly portray peer groups as dangerous, with headlines such as “Keeping teens home and away from friends during Covid-19” and “No, you can’t see your friends: Getting teens to accept Covid-19 restrictions”. And while some authors encourage listening to young people during this time and validating their feelings and give suggestions for ways they can stay connected to their friends, most emphasise the importance of educating children and young people about Covid-19 so they would not break the rules of lockdown.

Although education about the virus is certainly important, it is curious that its main audience is thought to be children and young people. After all, we have had plenty of examples in recent weeks of adults (some of them senior members of governments and parliaments around the world) defying Covid-19 restrictions. Surely they could use some educating on the matter as well? Placing children and young people front and centre in these debates is similar to popular and academic accusations of youth as politically disengaged, which fail to examine whether adults, who hold much more responsibility for the present socio-economic situation, are similarly disengaged[8]. Additionally, focusing the debate on political apathy on youth may be an attempt to divert attention away from adults and is another in a long series of instances where youth are blamed for societal problems.[9] Could this be the case here as well?

In contrast to what these parental guides imply, the children and young people who took part in the World Vision International study understood the importance of Covid-19 restrictions. Not only that, but they were eager to raise awareness and disseminate information about the virus in their communities, particularly to their friends and peers. In the words of Ahona, aged 16, from Bangladesh: “I think we can educate children about the pandemic – why it is so harmful and why people are freaking out so much. Many children are still not taking the issue seriously as they are witnessing a pandemic for the first time. Also, their parents are not that concerned. So, if we educate children, they can, in turn, spread the information to their families.”.[10] These findings not only challenge the assumption that young people are politically apathetic but also the common conceptualisation of youth’s political socialisation as a process that should be undertaken by adults.[11] In contrast, research has found that peers play a major role in youth’s political socialisation, with teen activists arguing that teaching each other political knowledge and skills (rather than being taught by adults) engenders mutual learning and sharing.[12]

To conclude, there are important insights to gain from listening to and engaging with children and young people in these extraordinary times and beyond. The issues I presented here are just the tip of the iceberg.

I thank Lynn Jamieson and the rest of the participants in the “Intimate Relationships under Lockdown” discussion group for the inspiring conversations and their helpful suggestions.

[1] Cuevas-Parra, P., & Stephano, M. (2020). Children’s voices in the time of COVID-19: Continued child activism in the face of personal challenges (pp. 1–32). World Vision International.
[2] Ibid. p. 17.
[8] Bulbeck, C., & Harris, A. (2008). Feminism, youth politics, and generational change. In A. Harris (Ed.), Next Wave Cultures: Feminism, Subcultures, Activism (pp. 221–241). Routledge.

[9] Ibid.
[10] Cuevas-Parra, P., & Stephano, M. (2020). Children’s voices in the time of COVID-19: Continued child activism in the face of personal challenges (pp. 1–32). World Vision International. P.22
[11] Gordon, H. R., & Taft, J. K. (2011). Rethinking youth political socialization: Teenage activists talk back. Youth & Society, 43(4), 1499–1527.

[12] Ibid.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Birth and beyond in a pandemic: Findings from a project with mothers in the England lockdown of spring 2020

Ranjana Das is Reader in Media and Communication, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. She specialises in the social uses and consequences of technology, with a current, ongoing focus on digital technologies, parenthood and mental health. Her work has been funded by the British Academy, the Wellcome Trust and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

When I found myself sitting with PPE-clad nurses in a GP surgery with my 8 week old infant being vaccinated amidst pin-drop silence in an empty clinic, I knew that I would raise her, locked down, unable to meet friends, my parents unable to fly in from India to see me, unable to attend post-natal clinics, unable to catch day-time moments of sleep with our 4 year old also home now, as nurseries closed, unable to see anyone for a coffee. Whilst this was very far from the maternity I had imagined, my personal experiences kicked into motion all possible elements of my professional identity. With my academic hat on, I am Reader in Media and Communications, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey, and I have spent the last five years researching the role of digital technologies in perinatal wellbeing, with 3 projects on maternal mental health, migrant mothers’ perinatal mental health and new fathers’ mental health (with Paul Hodkinson) – investigating, in each case, the role of digital technologies at such an intense, critical point in parenthood. I had already published in this area for five years, and now, suddenly, locked down with an infant in my arms, I felt a pressing need to do this fresh spate of new (online) fieldwork, and it gave me an opportunity to do fieldwork in which I was undoubtedly involved and invested myself, in all sorts of ways. The project recruited in a matter of days, and I had to turn many away for the sheer amount of interest I received. In what follows, I summarise some of the findings from this new report available for download freely on this link

COVID19, perinatal wellbeing and the role of technology

The report presents evidence relating to the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health and wellbeing during pregnancy and maternity. The triangle of (1) COVID-19 socio-economic impacts unequally impacting women (2) change in practices antenatally and during childbirth, (3) and social-distancing measures severely restricting women’s social support avenues generates significant additional challenges for perinatal mental health. There is an urgent need to assess this impact on maternal wellbeing (and thus on mothers, babies and families), to set action in motion which prevents significant long-term harm. The report contains findings from a qualitative project with 14 pregnant women and new mothers, conducted during May 2020. The project investigated the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic and resultant social distancing and lockdown measures on perinatal mental health, and the role, efficacy and nuances of formal and informal digital support at such a time. 3 of the 14 participants were in their third trimester of pregnancy, 11 had a very small baby, with babies aged between 4 weeks and 4 months. 4 participants came from South Asian backgrounds and all 14 came across a wide diversity of regions in England. 6 out of the 14 had diagnosed mental health difficulties. There was wide variation in accessing digital support - some were significantly unaware of sources of online support, others using informal connections, some being supported extensively, remotely, by perinatal mental health services.

The report consists of 4 (inter-linked) strands –

1) First, findings on the lines of disproportionate impacts (for instance, exacerbated inequalities or heightened impacts on those with pre-existing mental health conditions);

2) Second, findings on the range of difficult emotions coming up in pregnancy and maternity in relation to the virus and the measures against it;

3) Third, findings about the promises and pitfalls of both formal and informal digital support at such a time; and

4) Finally, recommendations for perinatal support, including digital pathways, for the much-spoken about, but, as yet, uncertain – ‘new normal’.

Disproportionate impacts on new mothers

In this blog, I reflect on the first strand – the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on maternal mental health in the perinatal period. For 3 out of 4 ethnic minority participants, partners were working outside the home, generating significant anxiety about partners contracting COVID-19 – itself a heightened concern amidst evidence that the disease is disproportionately impacting BAME communities. This was a significant worry for Arfaana whose partner worked long hours in a grocery store. Arfaana’s migration status as dependent on her spouse, a low household income and resultant socio-economic pressures on her partner and herself exacerbated during pandemic, and fuelled cycles of anxiety and depression for her, as she isolated at home, with a new baby. Concerns about her own partner contracting COVID-19 were heightened as well. These concerns were realised for Salma, whose partner contracted COVID-19 whilst working on the NHS. Salma’s exhaustion, with a new baby, diagnosed mental health difficulties and an ill partner, was back-breaking. She said –

“on top of looking after a baby … and doing all the housework, all the cooking, all … you know all of it was … it was just really, really hard, so I was in tears by the end, maybe the last three or four days with it …I think that definitely had a massive impact on my mental health.

Heightened exhaustion as a consequence of gendered inequalities in locked down household workload arrangements featured strongly in the interviews, particularly in cases where an older child was unexpectedly at home, with a new mum on maternity leave with a new baby and/or pregnant. When partners worked outside the home, such inequality was more likely to feelunavoidable, but in many cases, partners continued to work at home but isolated in a room to themselves leading to women picking up a high household load over and above a pregnancy or a new baby. Sophie said –

“at like half eight in the morning he goes up, shuts himself away, he comes down for lunch for like half an hour and then goes back till like six…So even though he’s technically at home, it’s like he’s not here.”

Mother blame and the heavy burdening of women as responsible for infant wellbeing, and solely so, sometimes resulted in heightening of lockdown restrictions – imposed on mothers by either wider family, or even by a partner anxious about the virus. Tanya spoke of feeling as though she lived ‘with a jailer’ and Arfaana spoke of restricting herself to a window for 7 weeks and counting.

Pre-existing mental health and other health difficulties significantly rendered women additionally vulnerable perinatally. Anna found herself suddenly discharged too early from perinatal mental health support which had been going really well for her but left her suddenly unsupported and more vulnerable. Those having to shield were particularly isolated. Sophie, with asthma grasped this isolation succinctly -

“I have some very severe asthma, so I’m classed as extremely vulnerable, so me and my husband, we’re in complete lockdown, so we don’t go out for exercise, we don’t go out for … shopping, I’ve really had to grieve the loss of the idea of the help that I was going to receive.”

Bianca, already under medication for pre-existing anxiety, and shielding owing to chest conditions now worsened owing to virus related anxiety around a premature baby and around herself potentially succumbing to the virus. Likewise, Ellen, with pre-existing health anxiety, struggled significantly with a lack of continuity of care and no partner support at appointments owing to social distancing measures and having to re-explain her difficulties over and again to someone new. These pandemic-related outcomes on professional support worsened perinatal mental health significantly for those already struggling.

Pre-existing struggles with close relationships, for instance, in the case of Tanya, who struggled to find emotional support from her partner, meant her resilience and sense of being able to cope with the pandemic whilst pregnant with a toddler in lockdown, took a significant beating. She spoke of breaking down in tears repeatedly, burdened by an incessant mental load of running her household and doing her job and found the lack of emotional support from her partner significantly difficult. The majority of women spoke of positive interpersonal relationships and supportive family ties, which, in various cases, seemed to ease them through the worst of the perinatal difficulties the pandemic exacerbated for them.

For more findings…

This is just a snapshot of exacerbation of existing difficulties, but the report itself then provides accounts of the nature of difficult emotions experienced, the roles and pitfalls of digital support, and outlines a series of recommendations for the uncertain ‘new normal’. There will be perinatal mental health needs now, in the variable and as yet unknown local, national and global phases of the pandemic, and in a post-pandemic context, and adequacy of support for perinatal mental health needs is a longstanding concern. Thus, for digital support to become truly meaningful in the ‘new normal’, to fill gaps in perinatal support successfully, for the largest numbers of people, and for joined-up, cross-sector, formal and informal collaborations of support, this needs to be in tune with offline, in-person provision and training. Focus on training and leadership on digital support must occur alongside the strengthening of offline support services to face the needs of pregnancy, maternity and perinatal mental health on a longer-term basis. These and other recommendations are unpacked in the full report.