Is Covid-19 changing our relationships?
By Yi-Ling Liu
As many countries around the world begin to emerge from lockdown, what can we learn from how people’s relationships and friendships have fared in China, where coronavirus began?
The Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped our personal relationships in unprecedented ways, forcing us to live closer together with some people and further apart from others. Life in lockdown has necessitated close, constant contact with our families and partners, but social distancing measures have isolated us from our friends and wider communities.
Both in China, which was the first country in the world to go into full lockdown when the virus emerged there, and in Hong Kong – where schools closed, shops were shuttered, and employees sent home – the virus has been brought under control and life has returned to some semblance of normality. But the pandemic has left some cracks in family relationships.
Most notably the high-pressure environment of confinement, combined with the financial stress brought about by a Covid-19 burdened economy, has led to a rise in marital conflict, according to Susanne Choi, a sociologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
This is most evident in a spike in divorce rates. In the city of Xi’an in northwest China’s Shaanxi province, marriage registration offices saw an unprecedented number of divorce requests when they re-opened in March. Online, the hashtag “Xi’an divorce appointment explosion” has gained 32 million reads on the social media platform Weibo.
“I’m doubling as both the man and woman in this family,” wrote a woman named Xuebi, on another Chinese social media site Zhihu, in a thread titled “After the epidemic, the first thing I want is a divorce”.
While she was working as a nurse in Wuhan’s over-stretched hospitals during the outbreak, her husband was at home with their five-year-old son having lost his job. But he was refusing to do jobs around the house, leaving it to her when she got home from her shifts, she complained. She would get a divorce as soon as office hours returned to normal, she wrote.
The rate of divorce has steadily been rising in China since 2003 when the process was made easier and faster. Making an appointment to file for divorce can now be done on the social media platform WeChat. In 2019, 4.15 million couples filed for divorce but a new law, which comes into effect on 1 January 2021, requires those seeking to end their marriages to complete a 30-day “cooling-off period” although this does not apply if there is domestic violence involved.
After the epidemic, the first thing I want is a divorce
And it would seem that in more extreme cases, these conflicts arising during lockdown have led to a surge an increase of cases of domestic violence. In Hubei province, the heart of the initial outbreak, reported cases of domestic violence increased threefold since the pandemic started. A similar increase has also been reported in many other countries across Europe where lockdowns have been implemented. (Read more about how digital technologies can be used for domestic abuse.)
In Beijing, the women’s rights NGO Equality reported a surge in calls to its helpline on issues of domestic violence, after lockdown measures were implemented throughout the country in early February. In Hong Kong, Harmony House, a domestic violence prevention centre and shelter, the number of admissions to the centre rose from 10 in January to 40 in April.
Ping Ping, one of the recently admitted residents whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had experienced domestic violence before the pandemic started. But after her husband started working from home in January, tensions worsened. They argued about how to clean and disinfect the home, whether or not to go outside with their two children, and when he was not happy with the food that she cooked, he would scold her. If she argued back, he would slap her across the face and throw the dishes on the floor.
“Although Hong Kong hasn’t gone into full lockdown, pandemic stress, the pressures of working from home, school closures, social isolation…have caused a rise in abusive behaviours in families,” says Susanna Lam, senior community officer at Harmony House.
A new world
In less extreme cases of conflict, many families and couples have found themselves navigating new problems, which perhaps aggravate existing tensions. A common point of contention, for example, is how to implement social distancing measures, says Sharmeen Shroff, a clinical psychologist based in Hong Kong. “Now, mundane discussions between couples like ‘should we send our child to this play date’, have become matters of life and death,” says Shroff. “Which will inevitably put families under strain and relationships to the test.”
Pandemic stress, the pressures of working from home, school closures, social isolation…have caused a rise in abusive behaviours in families - Susanna Lam
Another challenge that families are facing is the increased burden of care as a result of quarantine measures and home-schooling situations. Often, women end up shouldering a greater burden, given typically unequal divisions in household labour, according to Choi. Women spend 2.5 times more time on unpaid care work than men in China, and this will have long-term implications on women’s ability to participate in the workforce. “Women workers might be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 related layoffs,” said Choi, both because women have to stay at home and take care of their families, but also because both in China and Hong Kong, women are more likely to be employed in the retail sector, including restaurants, hotels and airlines, which have been hit heaviest by the pandemic.
When the pandemic hit, Susie Gao, who works in e-commerce in Shanghai, had been looking for a new job. In lockdown, this proved to be particularly challenging, because she had to take care of her two-year-old daughter who could no longer go to nursery. While her husband works in engineering, she worked in online retail, a sector much more affected by the pandemic. “In most families I know, financial burdens end up falling more on men, whereas domestic pressures end up falling on women,” says Gao.
Furthermore, many of those affected by layoffs in mainland China will be migrant workers, explains Choi. Many left the cities to return home when the outbreak began, in time for Spring Festival holidays, and have not been able to return to their jobs since.
Hu Xiaohong, a migrant worker in Beijing, visited her home in Shanxi for the holidays, and has stayed there with her husband and two children – who live there – ever since. On one hand, she’s anxious, unable to earn a living back home, where wages are comparatively lower than Beijing. But her son is overjoyed. “We left him behind in Shanxi to work in Beijing, five years ago,” she says. “This is the first time [my children are living with their mum] again.”
When navigating conflict and strains on family relationships, people often turn to their friends and wider communities for help. But given social distancing measures, most people have also been isolated from their usual support systems and cut off from our regular coping mechanisms. “Old activities like socialising, going to the gym, eating out, are no longer available options to us,” says Shroff. “So, we’ve had to turn even more to other means to connect with people, like [video conferencing] calls, text messaging and social media.”
But there exists also a digital divide, between people who have access to these technologies, and people who do not, says Fanny Cheung, a psychologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The elderly population for example, are less familiar with online communication technologies and less connected to their families because of quarantine measures, she explains.
At the other end of the scale, the younger generation is relying even more on online technologies to connect with others. And while these virtual friendships might seem like a good thing, research shows that an increased use of social media is actually leaving young people feeling more lonely and isolated.
Despite these challenges, the pandemic also presents people with the opportunity to critically re-evaluate their relationships. “I’ve seen people begin to re-establish lost connections, not only with other people, but also with themselves,” says Shroff.
“The pandemic has allowed my husband, daughter and I to spend much more time together,” adds Gao. “As a couple, we’ve been able to communicate frequently and as parents, we’ve been able to play with our daughter a lot more. So, I think we’ve emerged out of this crisis as a closer and more tight-knit family.”
In fact, while some people were rushing to end their marriages, in Wuhan – where the coronavirus is thought to have originated – sent others flocking online to submit marriage applications – via a system set up on the mobile payment platform Alipay – once the 76-day lockdown was lifted. The app reported a 300% increase in applications through the platform between January and April, with the system even crashing briefly due to demand.
The psychological aftermath
Further down the line, the effect of the pandemic and the associated concerns on our mental health must also be considered. Some mental health professionals believe it could be storing up another health crisis behind the pandemic itself. “If we do not act quickly, hospitals will soon be overloaded for requests for mental health services,” says Shroff.
A study of people in Hong Kong in the wake of the 2002-03 Sars epidemic found that “one year after the outbreak, Sars survivors still had elevated stress levels and worrying levels of psychological distress,” including depression and anxiety.
But it’s not all bad news - another study found that positive outcomes also emerged, such as strengthened relationships with family and friends, with more than 60% of respondents stating “they cared more about their family members' feelings” after the health crisis, and that they felt an increased drive to focus on mental health.
In China, where there is still significant stigma around mental health issues, the Covid-19 pandemic could be a “positive wake-up call,” which will force the government to pay more attention to equality in mental health resources and services. “If our priority was managing the spread of the virus, as we move into the next phase of the pandemic, we need to focus on flattening the mental health curve,” says Shroff.
Megan Lam, chief exexcutive of Neurum, a Hong Kong-based digital health company, has turned to technological solutions to address issues of mental health, pairing users on the platform with personalised care. In the workplace, “companies that introduce mental health initiatives, more equitable policies and more flexible working hours allow their workforces to thrive even in the most uncertain environments,” she says.
From the citizens of Wuhan shouting “Stay Strong Wuhan” together from their balconies, to Chinese feminists and activists coming together on social media to offer support and care to survivors of domestic violence and local NGOs in Hong Kong running mask and sanitiser drives to distribute to charities around the city, the pandemic has also strengthened families and communities, and brought them together.
“There has been a greater sense of community and solidarity,” adds Shroff. “It’s created this communal sense of giving back and rallying together that I’ve never seen before.”