Magazines 2020 Nov - Dec Family health in the pandemic

Family health in the pandemic

17 December 2020 By Winnie Lui

Christian sociologist Todd Martin reflects on resilience during Covid-19

The healthier we are as families, the better we are going to be able to navigate through the pandemic crisis, says Todd Martin, a Canadian sociologist at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. Martin has studied families for 30 years as a scholar and also ministered to folks in various life stages for over 25 years as a pastor.

As managing editor of the Journal of Comparative Family Studies, he keeps abreast of the work of his fellow sociologists around the world, so we asked him to share some of his pandemic-related observations in a recent Zoom interview.

Families in a pandemic winter

Martin says a crisis doesn’t produce weaknesses or strengths in individuals and families – it mostly exposes them.

“When we’re talking about Covid-19, we’re really talking about a disruption in our normal pattern and way of doing things,” he says. “And that’s not going to create unhealthy families any more than it’s going to create healthy families.”

The work of Martin and his colleagues has illuminated what factors prepare people for surviving or thriving. “We know that families that are healthy are able to be resilient as they go through these crises,” he said. “They often emerge on the other side of the crises as stronger and closer.”

Factors that predict family resilience include pre-existing strengths, such as balanced levels of family flexibility and togetherness. Flexible families are able to adapt to the changing needs and dynamics of stress and crisis.

“They can switch roles and cover for each other regarding work, home care or childcare needs,” explains Martin. “They also have a good balance of ‘me time’ versus ‘we time’.”

Another factor is a habit of healthy communication. This allows families to navigate the fluid nature of crises and their family impacts by talking through issues.

Societal inequalities highlighted

In addition to exposing family weaknesses, the pandemic has also exposed societal ones.

“The individuals who are being negatively impacted by Covid-19 are those who are already economically disadvantaged,” he says. Although many people are equipped to work from home and stay connected through digital devices with access to the internet, “that might not be the case for a significant portion of society,” he says.

And then there’s the unequal impact of Covid-19 from a gender perspective. From a strictly biological point of view, the virus attacks both sexes indiscriminately. But because our society doesn’t value everyone equally, “Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting women when it comes to, for example, who stays home and has to educate the children, who has to look after children if schools are closed.

“When it comes to caring for the sick or those in isolation – who’s more likely to do it, a man or a woman?”

The Church amid a global crisis

Martin sees the pandemic as a chance for the Church to make a positive and visible contribution to society. “I see opportunity particularly for Christianity and for the core historical orthodox faith that the Early Church practised,” he says.

“When I think of the Church’s beginnings, I think of the context of fear and anxiety, challenge and difficulty, geopolitical unrest, plagues and pandemics – all were certainly present.”

Despite their challenges, early Christians were known to be incredibly sacrificial in their desire to reach out and care for weak, destitute and ailing people (Acts 4:32-35). Their example is consistent with Jesus’ call to meet acute needs (Matthew 25:31-40).

Martin sees a temptation in our context to passively defer to social institutions. “Unfortunately we tend to look to a social safety net – a modern replacement for Christian charity, love and involvement.”

He warns that we should not let our “good health care and good social services take away from the opportunity for Christians and Christian families to – particularly at a neighbourhood level – step in and say, ‘I’m going to check on my elderly neighbour. I’m going to look at my single neighbour or flat resident.’ ”  

What a great way to follow God’s call and at the same time help our society be more resilient – simply by regularly asking our neighbours if they need anything. Can I get anything for you?

Winnie Lui is director of public relations at TWU. Todd Martin, PhD, is dean of TWU’s faculty of humanities and social sciences and an associate professor of sociology.