COVID 19: How does it affect you?
A team of researchers at University College Dublin (UCD) conducted an online interview study about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study is a pan-European study led by researchers at the University of Vienna and includes nine countries, including the Republic of Ireland. We are interested to learn how citizens respond to the pandemic, and what they think about measures suggested or imposed by their governments to slow down the spread of the virus. We are interviewing people in several European countries to compare how people respond to the crisis. The study has been approved by the Ethics Committee at the University of Vienna and vetted by the Ethics Committee at University College Dublin.
We have concluded the second wave of interviews and data analysis is in progress. Please follow this page for further updates. A heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated from all across Ireland.
Solidarity in Times of a Pandemic – Irish Overview (from 1st round of interviews)
By Dr Ilaria Galasso (November 2020)
While we have just concluded the second round of interviews (October 2020) and are busy analysing this data, we present here a first overview of what we found in the first round (conducted in April 2020) by focusing on the issue of solidarity.
Solidarity is the main focus of the SolPan Consortium this study is part of – Ireland is one of the 9 European countries that coordinated the collection of qualitative in-depth open-ended interviews by following the same interview outline to uncover how and why people respond to the pandemic and the ensuing policy measures (15 Latin American countries implemented a parallel study design, as part of “SolPan+”).
Solidarity is defined as: “an enacted commitment to carry ‘costs’ (financial, social, emotional or otherwise) to assist others with whom a person or persons recognise similarity in a relevant respect” (Prainsack and Buyx 2017, 52). In our case, the “similarity in a relevant respect” is quite obviously the exposure to the Covid19 pandemic and the related social crisis, which, in one way or another, concerns everyone. As a consequence, politicians and public authorities have repeatedly appealed to the concept of solidarity as a way through and out of this public health crisis.
In April, during the first lockdown, we conducted 32 interviews in Ireland. The word “solidarity” was used only once by our participants (“hopefully this crisis requires a lot of solidarity with older people, with the healthcare workers, with other workers who are most affected about that”), but similar concepts were expressed in terms of personal or social “responsibility” (“protecting the wider community”, to “do my part and stay healthy”, “trying to protect them [risk categories] as much as we can”) and “civic duty” (to protect others).
In several cases, even if they did not use any specific label, our respondents displayed ‘solidaristic reasoning’. It often was expressed in normative terms, by arguing that in order to control the pandemic and to get out of it, everyone should do their part and “take sacrifices”. On the other hand, several participants expressed themselves in descriptiveterms, by arguing that the solidarity that ought to be there, actually is there. In the words of one participant: “The caring gene has come to the fore”. Several participants declared themselves surprised and impressed by the cooperative response of the Irish population, by “people coming together like from all walks of life helping each other”, and even argued that it is thanks to people’s promptness and compliance about turning their lives over that Ireland was saved from a worse fate: “people, members of the public have done a really good job and I think they are probably the reason you know the public is the reason that the Covid 19 you know the pandemic has limited impact in this country”.
Concretely, in the experiences that the participants shared with us, solidarity is articulated across different practices. In particular, we can recognize two main articulations of solidarity: practices to protect people from getting the virus, and practices to give people support. To echo Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty (Berlin 1969), we can describe the articulation of solidarity in terms of protection as a negative one, in the sense that it is aimed to remove the factors that put people at risk of infection. On the other hand, the articulation of solidarity in terms of support can be described as a positive one, in the sense that it is aimed to provide people with something that can ameliorate their conditions.
Protecting practices are directed towards members of the family or of the social circle of the respondents, as well as toward the general public. As far as members of the families and friends are concerned, the main protection strategy implemented by our respondent is to avoid visiting and seeing them, although, in some cases, this causes huge emotional cost and it is described as the most painful aspect of the pandemic; nonetheless, it is accepted to avoid bringing the virus to loved ones. In several cases, people deliver groceries to vulnerable family members or neighbours (this is one of the supporting practices that will be discussed below), but also in these cases they carefully avoid any contact, and just drop the groceries off. Protecting practices are also implemented toward people living in the same household: several participants declared that it is to protect their household members that they are careful and compliant with all the recommendations when they are out, as they have to make sure not to “bring the virus into the house”. In some cases, especially when someone is particularly exposed, as in the case of healthcare workers, specific measures are also adopted in the house: changing clothes, leaving the shoes out of the door, frequent hand washing.
Protecting practices toward the general public are often intertwined with practices for protecting self (or household members in return), but in some cases our participants have been very explicit about the attention they have put into protecting others from themselves. They are aware that they cannot know if they are infected (and infectious) or not, as they could be asymptomatic. Accordingly, they feel the need to protect other people from themselves, mainly by keeping the adequate distance (in supermarkets and on the street).
In terms of supporting practices, the reported experiences mainly relate to logistical support and emotional support. Very little or no reference at all was made to economic support, unlike in other countries involved in the SolPan study (in Italy, for example, most respondents reported experience of food or money donations to those who cannot afford shopping). On the other hand, grocery collection and delivery for those who cannot leave the house, the elderly, or those who are cocooning, was reported as a very widespread phenomenon, to the extent that we have been told of a couple of cases of people who offered to volunteer in organizations shopping for vulnerable people, but there already were too many volunteers. These initiatives mainly consist of picking up and delivering food and medicines, and they are implemented by more or less organized groups (like local football teams) that set up Whatsapp groups or distribute flyers and collect groceries for whoever requests it; but individuals, as mentioned, also often regularly do the shopping for older or vulnerable relatives, neighbours, or friends.
Another important form of support reported by our participants relates to emotional support. Emotional support is often in place whenever children are involved: several participants with children declared to be committed to try to “think up new things to do with them, so they don’t get bored”, and to make sure to play regularly with the children, and to give them a routine. Other instances of emotional support relate to family members in difficult situations. Since in many cases it may not be possible to see them (due to practical constraints or travel restrictions or, as seen, for individual choice aimed to protect them), our participants intensified communications with them: “We have calls, conference calls on a daily basis just to make sure she is OK.” Also, some participants demonstrated a deeper attention toward mental health issues of people who are not part of their close family but who are particularly fragile, and they committed to cheer them up: “I sometimes feel, he said, what’s the point of living now? So I told him well, one major point for you living is I’d miss you. And he smiled up.”
Something noticeably recurring in the Irish interviews, although not a solidarity practice itself, is the essential premise for any solidarity practice: the understanding of other people’s vulnerabilities and challenges, understanding that not “everybody is as fortunate as I am”. Most of our participants acknowledged how privileged they are with respect to other specific or general people under some aspects, and demonstrated to be sensitive to others’ vulnerabilities and challenges. This is articulated across the different aspects impacted by the crisis: in terms of health (“And I think there is also an element of there’s gratitude in it too, because thank God we are all well. We’ve all stayed well to this point. And that’s a lot to be thankful for”), of economic resources (“I suppose from my perspective it’s fine but maybe if someone has lost their job might have a different reaction”), of housing (“luckily I have the front garden and a back garden…I suppose if I was trapped in a flat, apartment, and I couldn’t get out the front garden or if I hadn’t as much space I would find that pretty difficult”), in terms of domestic issues (for instance the risk of domestic violence that others might live under) and in terms of risky jobs, obviously healthcare workers, but also less visible workers who are nonetheless exposed (“obviously apart from the health workers that are in the front line there are quite a lot of people actually at risk in their daily job, like for example the people that collect the rubbish”).
While we are working on more specific analyses to dig more deeply into these and other issues, from this overview on the first round of interviews we conclude that, although our participants very rarely explicitly refer to the concept of solidarity (or even to related concepts such as “social responsibility” or “civic duty”), they share and put in practice solidaristic values. They show perception of and sensitivity to other people’s challenges and vulnerabilities and act accordingly, on the one hand by paying attention to and complying with recommendations to prevent other people from being infected by the virus, and on the other hand by taking initiative to provide support and logistically and emotionally facilitate other people’s life through this pandemic. Overall, though we only have a small sample to judge from, it seems that solidarity practices are alive and well in Ireland!
If you have any questions about the study, please contact the UCD Research lead Prof Susi Geiger (email: Susi.firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone 01 7164813). For more information on Susi please click here or visit our MISFIRES “people” page.
This research is part of a multinational study on “Solidarity in times of pandemics”, led by Professor Barbara Prainsack at the University of Vienna.