Report Examines Community Stress from COVID-19, Need for Resilience

An aerial view of Chicago's South Loop neighborhood on the first day of the COVID-19 shelter in place order, with roadways virtually empty.

The University of Illinois System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) released a new report on the strain the COVID-19 Pandemic is putting on communities and families in Illinois, and how policymakers can help make them more resilient in the face of the crisis.

At the request of U of I System President Tim Killeen, IGPA assembled more than four dozen interdisciplinary faculty experts from the three system universities to serve on IGPA’s Task Force on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic.  SPH's Dr. Ron Hershow, professor of epidemiology, is serving on the community and family resilience task force, which published this report.

“All Illinoisans are impacted by the strain COVID-19 places upon communities and families, but some persons are more vulnerable than others, including the elderly, and those with disabilities, prior mental illness, financial disparities, and fragile social and family ties,” the report says.

In the coming days, the task force plans to produce interactive data maps that will help shed light on where populations vulnerable to the virus and to the negative effects of social distancing are concentrated in the state.

“We are all, sadly, acutely aware of the daily number of new cases and the tragic increases in the death toll from COVID-19 in our state,” IGPA Director Robin Fretwell Wilson said. “There are also other human costs from this pandemic that are less visible. These include feelings of isolation and hopelessness, loss of access to medical care not related to the pandemic, and the negative outcomes of unemployment, including food insecurity and an inability to care for one’s family.”

These stressors pose risks to the mental and physical well-being of Illinoisans, especially children.

Research shows that during times of stress, rates of intimate partner violence, child abuse and family conflict increase. Family instability, including mental health concerns, substance abuse, prior trauma exposure and the loss of work that creates economic hardships, magnify these concerns.  For the most vulnerable children, even if the risk for infection is very low, the risk for heightened anxiety, fear and depression can increase.

IGPA COVID-19 Task Force  |  Community and Family Resilience Group

Members of the task force also are currently working on Policy Spotlights responding to issues raised by the task force’s reports, such as the expected increase in child and partner abuse described in this report. These targeted briefs will suggest potential policy approaches for state and local governments and other relevant organizations.

This report notes that as families and individuals in the state are feeling greater strain, the institutions and relationships they might normally lean on to get through difficult times — such as schools, religious organizations, and family and friendship networks — are less able to support them.

To bolster community support systems and help connect them to those in need, the authors call for the creation of a statewide Resilient Illinois Initiative. This initiative would strengthen partnerships, information sharing, communication and coordination among community groups.

The report makes a series of recommendations for community-based organizations and researchers related to the initiative, such as holding webinars and workshops to help build up families.

The report also offers some suggestions for families trying to cope with the crisis:

  • Try to keep consistent routines, such as regular bedtimes;
  • Listen to each other and provide support;
  • Encourage positive family rituals;
  • Practice family problem-solving;
  • Encourage parents and caregivers to regulate their emotions and try to respond to negative emotions in a calming way.

The Resilient Illinois Initiative would help to connect families so they could learn from each other and share their own strategies with their peers, according to the report.

While this report focuses on some of the negative effects on families and communities, it emphasizes that, historically, people react to disasters with resiliency, resourcefulness, generosity, empathy and bravery. “Disasters, including COVID-19, can actually open up individuals, families and communities to positive changes, if activated by prudent public-private actions to strengthen communities’ and families’ abilities to weather the expected destructive and disruptive consequences,” the report says.

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