Finding the Opportunity in the COVID-19 Crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has done what all crises do – it’s stripped away many of the masks or veils that existed in day-to-day spaces.  It has magnified the strengths, opportunities and challenges that exist within our personal spaces, as well as in our communities – regardless of whether our community is well-resourced or struggling in this time. The Chinese word for crisis is often cited in motivational speaking: it’s made up of two characters, Wei which means danger and Ji which means opportunity. Both are playing out in this pandemic.    

The dangers that the COVID-19 crisis presents are inextricably linked to our past, as well as the present. Cape Town as a city still bears the consequences and scars of our Apartheid history. The urban poverty so prevalent on the Cape Flats is one of these consequences. The burden on families to sustain themselves within a context of high levels of unemployment, inconsistent wage earning and a deepening economic recession due in part to the COVID-19 will magnify this burden. A burden which includes hunger. And hunger will in turn increase learning challenges for youth who are struggling to concentrate, deepen behavioural and emotional challenges for children and adults as they manifest as anxiety, depression, anger and defiance, and weaken immune systems trying to fight off illness.

Hunger will exacerbate relationship challenges in families as coping strategies are depleted and emotional and behavioural dynamics take their toll. Hunger will increase the vulnerability of seeking belonging and inclusion outside of the home and which is so often found in gangs. It will also increase the exposure to sexual exploitation in exchange for resources.  These dangers have existed on the Cape Flats for many years, but we are already seeing these dangers increase as a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis.

Yet, this crisis is also presenting us the possibility of opportunity. All around us we hear and see a deepening empathy, a slowing of pace, a re-calibration of our priorities and a call to return to the things that are important. The opportunity in this crisis is to re-imagine a world that could be different.

At Arise, our focus continues to be “How do we strengthen families?” Seventy percent of the work that Arise does is based in the Family Centre.  It’s the hub of the responses to families needing support, whether through our family strengthening groups, Family Forum or family meetings; or through our innovative programmes that are developed in order to train and support other professionals working in our South African context. And yet the COVID-19 crisis and the physical hunger it has led to has necessitated we change the way we support these same families.

We recognize the importance of a sense of safety and security in order to strengthen families – a sense which is established by not needing to wonder about mealtimes. Arise reached out to generous sponsors and partnered with organizations in order to bring some small measure of relief to the families we work with, through crisis food parcels and the provision of face masks. It has been an opportunity for families to stand together and strengthen other families.

This family strengthening continues as Arise embarks on a new venture this week, which sees our professional staff utilizing technology to provide talks online on Parenting in a Pandemic, with all proceeds and donations earmarked to continue keeping the hunger of families in Heideveld at bay. Although we are growing our presence online by offering workshops and training, we are also reflecting on how we respond to the needs of our communities who don’t necessarily have the means to access our online platforms.

Lockdown may have paused the in-person work that Arise does, but it has not stopped it. Creative responses are needed that don’t require high data usage but which still acknowledge resilience and offer support. Arise has met this challenge through sending weekly WhatsApp videos to our Family Forum group members in, instead of weekly groups as well as being available via phone, WhatsApp and email to continue to connect and refer families to organizations who can help when we aren’t equipped to do so. We have sent out messages of support and encouragement and hope. The journey we walk with each of the families who come to our Family Centre is one that spans time and now distance and which will continue.

Arise is working hard to understand the complexities of how this pandemic will affect families in marginalized communities by identifying needs of the community and how best we can meet them. This is in line with developing research in how NGOs should be responding to this crisis, but this understanding can only happen when connected and in the community. Soon we will reopen our Family Centre, with adaptations to ensure we continue to support the fight against the COVID-19 infection rate, but which also sees families supported as they deal with the challenges they face while strengthening the resilience they already have.

We will continue to be innovative in our approach as we walk a journey which hasn’t been walked before. But we can’t do it alone. Our Family Centre needs long term partnerships and funding in order to continue the journeys we are walking with these families. Perhaps this is the opportunity that this crisis is offering you? To walk a journey with us, to partner with us as we walk with others. Together we can respond to this challenge, together we can strengthen families, together we can change communities. 

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