Episode 1: The Coronavirus Toolkit
In this special launch episode of our Life Solved podcast, we hear from researchers across our Faculties discussing the Coronavirus pandemic. From a rise in domestic violence to struggles with anxiety and parenting under new conditions. Our researchers share what they've discovered and discuss potential solutions for the new world we find ourselves in.
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John Worsey speaks to:
- Dr Tamsin Bradley about the rise in violence against women during the crisis
- Dr. Erika Hughes and Dr. Alice Good about connecting with each other during Covid
- Dr. Sam Robson about tracking virus genomes to predict the future spread of the virus
- Dr John Leach and Dr Emma Maynard about managing ourselves and others during change and disruption.
Our friendships are incredibly important to us in developing our sense of identity and our security and place in the world. All of that has been ripped up from under them.
Narrator: Welcome to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. In this brand, new podcast series will be bringing you news and stories of the cutting edge research that happens here on campus and around the world. I'm John Worsey, a writer, and I've been talking to the researchers, academics and scientists who are working to break new ground and make a difference to everyday lives. We'll deep dive into topics of politics and society, medical science, the environment and technology. I hope you'll join me as I snatch interviews with these brilliant minds and explore the ideas that look set to change our world. We've been making this series during strange times, but the work of my Portsmouth colleagues has been ever more vital during the Coronavirus pandemic. That's why we're starting with something a bit special.
Narrator: To launch our series. We've decided to speak to as many of our colleagues as possible to get their thoughts on how our world is changing and what ideas they have to help you adapt. Think of this as a bit of a Coronavirus toolkit, if you like. I'm also gonna be finding out how they're helping us adapt to the future and search for solutions to the problems that COVID-19 has created. We'll hear about Portsmouth's contribution to developing tracking technology for the Coronavirus. We'll be talking about how people are connecting differently and adapting to new challenges under social distancing. We'll also hear ideas on managing ourselves and others under new conditions. Thanks for joining me for Life Solved, the Coronavirus toolkit.
Narrator: Changes to normal life and relationships can exacerbate existing problems, too. During the pandemic lockdown here in the U.K., enquiries to a national domestic abuse helpline increased by 25 percent. I'm joined by Dr Tamsin Bradley, Professor of International Development Studies, to find out what's behind this.
Narrator: Tamsin, thanks ever so much for giving us your time today. We're going to talk, obviously, about how your research relates to the coronavirus and what's going on in the world right now. But I thought it might be helpful if you would give us an overview of what your work is all about.
Tamsin Bradley: In normal times, I'm managing and conducting research mainly in South Asia and parts of Africa, but also in the U.K., looking at different forms of violence against women and girls. That ranged from different levels of domestic violence through to what we term harmful cultural practises, so things like female genital mutilation, but also harassment that's linked to practises such as dowry and bride price. So it's very much about trying to document prevalence, but understand what the triggers are for those forms of violence and to also gather evidence around what works best in terms of challenging violence and ultimately what works best to end it.
Narrator: What sort of impact then have these abnormal times had on the sort of issues that you look at?
Tamsin Bradley: What we know in terms of the global evidence base around triggers for violence is that in a situation of stress, of crisis, levels of violence spike and increase and all forms of violence actually increase. So at the times that we're in now, obviously they're incredibly stressful for people across the globe. So predictions going into the Covid 19 context were that we would see spikes in levels of intimate partner violence. But we're also, even more worryingly, seeing spikes in different forms of harmful cultural practice. So we're seeing increases in female genital mutilation. We are seeing increases in child marriage. And these are really troubling trends that if we don't act now to reverse, is going to wipe out potentially decades of really positive global action and interventions on the ground. So this is the situation that we are we're in now. We predicted it to some extent, but the problem is always working within violence against women and girls is that the visibility and the priority of this area is often sidelined.
Narrator: You mentioned in times of stress, such as those that we're living in now, this is exactly the kind of thing that you would have and indeed did predict would happen. What sort of factors then contributes to rises in domestic violence and to an increase in things like FGM and child marriage?
Tamsin Bradley: So in terms of intimate partner violence, it's stress at the level of the household. So it's tension and stress that have resulted from a loss or lack of income, food insecurity, but also loss of status. So we're seeing in some context where men are unable to support their family financially, they find that they're no longer the breadwinner, and families are struggling in a very kind of day-to-day way to meet basic needs that stress tips over into violence.
Tamsin Bradley: So women are commodified but also seen as objects of male control. So, therefore, they become the source or the focus for stress and tension, either blamed for the situation or just literally that the focus for the outlet of that aggression.
Tamsin Bradley: So in terms of practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, I mean, we've got some horrific cases, for example, in Kenya or villages where there has been a mass move to cut girls under the veil of Covid because Covid has meant that community development workers are not visible, are not able to interact face-to-face with communities in the way that they would normally. We're seeing health centres are shut for similar reasons. We're seeing schools are shut. So all of the mechanisms and relationships on the ground that actually serve to keep girls safe and to monitor moves towards, for example, marrying girls or having them cut aren't in place.
Narrator: I mean, you've talked about cultural change, which obviously is a really long term process and I guess that is only slowed down when cultures have to focus on other things, like a global pandemic. Are there actions that people can take now? You're obviously gathering huge amounts of data that will be really useful in combating these situations in the future. But are there actions that... Say if somebody is listening to this podcast and they are be feeling trapped at home with an abusive partner, are there things that people can be doing now?
Tamsin Bradley: So I guess there's two dimensions to that question. Firstly, it's what can a person do if they're finding themselves in a situation of violence? In the U.K. we have helplines, but it's not always possible for victims to reach out if they're living in close proximity with their perpetrator. We've had initiatives to create safe spaces and now we're beginning to be able to move around a little bit more. It's possible for victims to access those safe spaces. So there's a combination, obviously ringing 999 in a very extreme situation. For those that are living around potential situations of domestic violence, we all need to be vigilant and take responsibility. And if we are concerned to draw the support from the relevant services. We have a really good third sector provision in terms of responding to violence against women in this country. We're very lucky in that respect. It's still massively underfunded and we haven't seen the levels of funding that we need. The second dimension in terms of the kind of global rise in different forms of violence, really we have to keep this issue visible. It's absolutely critical that awareness is raised around what is going on. So using the internet there's a number of forums and movements that have emerged, bringing together activists who are working at the grassroots together to share stories.
Narrator: So are there things that we could be doing to make sure that we are better prepared for a rise in domestic violence during future events, whether that's a resurgence of Coronavirus or a different pandemic altogether?
Tamsin Bradley: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it's about mainstreaming violence against women approach within our pandemic response. So moving forward, really, we need to do work to ensure that we have a series of mechanisms in place. I mean, the most extreme is to ensure that we have enough shelter and refuge spaces, but also that we have mechanisms in terms of being able to quickly get women and children out of violent situations and into those safe spaces. So communication is absolutely critical. We've seen a jump in the use of hotlines and helplines. That's only the beginning. That's about somebody reaching out to a professional. We then need to be able to follow through with safe referral mechanisms.
Narrator: Tamsin, thanks ever so much for your time.
Narrator: In isolation, it's easy to think of the current situation simply through the lens of our own experiences. But Tamsin makes an important point about how human behaviour and cultural norms are influenced by adverse events the world over. We look forward to finding out more about her work in a later episode of Life Solved.
Narrator: During worrying times, many have sought new ways to connect with loved ones, colleagues and even a sense of normality in work and day to day life. We're also seeing how our need to stay connected is driving innovation in technology and lifestyle habits. Next, we're discussing these innovations and why it matters to stay in touch. Even if we can't actually touch. Dr. Erika Hughes is academic lead performance at the School of Art, Design and Performance. And Dr. Alice Good is senior lecturer in Human Computer Interaction.
Narrator: This is gonna be a really interesting one because you're both working in very different fields. So before we really start digging into that and what you guys are discovering and thinking, would you both just give us a quick potted history of your research area and what you do, what it is that particularly drives you as a researcher? Alice, could we start with you?
Alice Good: Yeah, thank you, John. My area of research is around well-being, particularly mental well-being. And I'm interested in the relationship between well-being and digital devices, as well as the development of digital tools for the self-management of well-being.
Narrator: And Erika, how about you? What's your area?
Erika Hughes: So I'm the Academic Lead for the Performance area here at the University of Portsmouth, and I look at history, memory and its relationship to the body as we perform on stage, of course, but also as we're performing in our daily lives.
Narrator: Let's start with you, Erika. Have you had to adapt the way that you work under the lockdown?
Erika Hughes: We think about theatre and we think about not just the live experience, but the live experience that's frequently shared in the same physical space. And we've had to make some massive changes this term but they've been really, really interesting. We've made some discoveries through those. So, for example, I was directing a play that was actually supposed to open on May 22nd. When we went into lockdown we decided that we were going to give each student masterclasses one-on-one. And what we did was we asked each student to think about the character that they had been working with to perform for the play. And we asked them to write and perform an original monologue from that character's perspective if that character were in lockdown.
Narrator: Right. I'm definitely gonna check that out. Alice, how about you? How have you found lockdown has affected the way that you work.
Alice Good: This has been a huge shift. But I mean, the School of Computing has a long history of teaching distance learning even if all the lecturers themselves haven't been involved, but the school itself has been involved. I've been involved in a large global project and developing a mobile application to support safety at work particularly for key workers. Managing their wellbeing, managing their perception of wellbeing and safety in the workplace, and as you can imagine, a lot of key workers, this has had a massive impact upon them and very stressful working conditions, feeling unsafe at work. And of course, all of this leads to the impact upon their own wellbeing. So we're developing an app and this is an altruistic venture, none of us are being paid for it. We're not selling the app, we're giving it to companies for free. And we're just we're very, very close to releasing it now.
Narrator: That sounds fantastic. Does it have a name that you can reveal at this stage or idea?
Alice Good: HYGIEIA. So Hygieia is a Greek word for clean and safe and safety. So Hygieia is H.Y.G.I.E.I.A. And we've got a website, we've got a Facebook page, we've got some videos.
Narrator: And what does research tell us about the impact of the kind of isolation that we've been experiencing through lockdown. What effect does that have on our mental states?
Alice Good: It would be obvious to most people that the restrictions on freedom of movement, for instance, is going to have a detrimental impact upon wellbeing, feelings of panic, a sense of loneliness from being isolated from friends and family, which most of us, if not all of us have been through, and the cause of general anxiety, too. And then, of course, is the issue that people with existing mental health issues are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety, too. And that, of course, is a big concern. We've seen a massive change in the way people are communicating, using social media and so forth and groups getting together. I mean, I don't know if any of you've heard of the Covid-19 mutual aid support groups? This started, I think, around March. Communities coming together, the pandemic, well, some of the plus sides, so the positive aspects, I mean, there's not much to be said that is positive! It's the fact that communities have come together and technology has, of course, enabled that. I've heard of WI groups of ladies in their 70s and 80s using Zoom who'd never used Zoom, never used Skype.
Narrator: Yes, certainly in Portsmouth there's a very active community COVID support group here, which gets a lot of engagement from across the community. And I think from what I've seen, it's been a real, real lifeline for a lot of people.
Alice Good: I'm part of a Covid-19 mutual aid support group here in Northumberland in my local village, and I've been chatting to people I've never actually met in in real life and in person. And then I've been walking along, of course, the village and people said, are you are you Alice? Yes. Oh, yes. I've been chatting to you and it's ah-OK. And I've met so many people who live in the village I've never spoken to before! And yet I've lived here for two and a half years and it's only a small village, so I think it's actually brought people together. And as I said before, I hope that lasts.
Narrator: Yeah, that's amazing, isn't it? I think it's certainly true to say that, not for everybody by any means, but for large swathes of the population, screens and smart devices and broadband, you know, has certainly saved jobs and livelihoods and it has enabled connections. I'd like to come to you, Erika, and you've had some coverage in the media regarding the physical experience and how that's changed and what might change for us in the future.
Erika Hughes: Yeah, you know, it's interesting because Covid is obviously a disease that we think so much about, the way it impacts the body, the lungs, if you are infected by it. But the truth is that Covid is actually a disease that socially impacts everybody who is in a lockdown situation physically. So whether it's wearing a mask, whether it's having to have an awkward moment where you would normally shake somebody's hand, proximity to one another, really the way in which we move throughout the world is being drastically rewritten because of these new restrictions that we're having to live within. So I think it's really, really useful to think about the experience of Covid as a physical one that impacts your body, whether or not you're actually infected with Covid-19.
Narrator: Yeah. Fascinating. And you've written about the meaning of the handshake, which was a really, really interesting to read. Could you tell us a bit about why the handshake is so important in our culture?
Erika Hughes: Honestly, I remember learning how to shake hands when I was a kid. I remember my father used to practise the handshake with me. He didn't want me to have a quote-unquote "dead fish" handshake, and so he would make me do it over and over and over again. And the thing is, the handshake is a really profound choreography that two people who've never met each other can know and can participate in that ritual. And in fact, it communicates quite a bit to your partner, in effect, and so if we're thinking about what we're doing when we can't touch each other, what we're doing is we're eliminating a really important tool to communicate and to establish a connection among one another. So as we're having to rethink the handshake, we're having to look to other kinds of gestures that we might not be, here in the U.K., used to – or in the states where I grew up – we might not be used to performing, necessarily. And so, you know, on the one hand, you have really lovely gestures from Asia where you might be bowing or you might put your hands together or nodding. What it's doing to us, it might be destabilising the dominance of the Western gesture and inviting a kind of a more global approach to what are the choreographies that we know when we're greeting one another. Furthermore, now I think that the particularly in parts of the United States, whether or not to handshake, is a political act in the same way that wearing a mask has kind of become a political act or a signifier of a certain set of behaviours, ideas, ideologies. And so as we're moving through this new landscape, we're performing as well, those political ideologies based on whether or not we're extending our hand and how.
Narrator: Thanks, both, it's good to hear that there are some positives to be found in our new way of life. Next up, news of a project that's seen University of Portsmouth staff redeployed for urgent research work. This is part of the Covid-19 Genomic UK Consortium, or COG UK, which is a national response to the virus. Three cross University projects are also sharing funding from Wessex Academic Health Science Centre to tackle the challenges of Covid-19.
Narrator: I'm joined by Dr Sam Robson, Senior Research Fellow and Lead Bioinformatician at the Centre for Enzyme Innovation here at the University. He's going to explain how Portsmouth is playing its part.
Narrator: So, Sam, thanks for joining us. We're going to talk about the role that you're playing, a really important and interesting role that you're playing in the fight against coronavirus. And I know that your wife also is a respiratory specialist at a local hospital. So you're both actually right there on the front line in very different ways. But I know you're also having to balance all of this with home schooling. How have you found that?
Sam Robson: It's been very interesting, I have to say. It's been tough, there's no doubt about that, I'm sure a lot of people are in a similar situation where they're trying to juggle work life with home schooling and with looking after a child. I have a daughter who's 7. We've come up with a good system of working, we're able to work together. So she does some lessons while I do my work. We try and have a bit of time together when we can, but essentially it means that time has lost all meaning to me.
Narrator: So you've probably got the most well-informed 7 year old in the UK on this subject of Coronavirus.
Sam Robson: Yeah, I think she often tells people that Mummy and Daddy are both helping to fight the virus. So I think she's quite proud about that.
Narrator: So, Sam, let's start with the real basics. What is bioinformatics and why do we need it now?
Sam Robson: So I guess bioinformatics at its core is essentially doing biology using a computer. So it kind of sets somewhere between biology, computer science and statistics. My main area of expertise lies in looking at genomic data. So, in particular, looking at DNA sequences. And obviously, DNA is kind of the blueprint to life, it's what's contained in our cells and tells our cells how to make new cells, how to react to certain events that occur. Really as bioinformaticians we're exploring that DNA using a variety of different tools, a variety of different methods, but essentially trying to understand how the machinery of life actually works and how we can use that to our advantage. Be that with healthcare, understanding pandemics such as the one that we're currently going through at the moment. But, you know, that's 3 billion bits of information contained in a human genome and we can sequence that very, very quickly, which comes in very, very helpful for what we're trying to do at the moment, which is to understand a virus which has a much, much smaller genome. So the genome of the virus is about 30,000 base pairs in length, you know, several orders of magnitude smaller than the human genome. We're actually able to sequence and understand what that sequence looks like very, very quickly from samples that come through to us. And I guess in a similar way to how one might look at a family tree and try and trace back our ancestors by looking at, you could trace back your DNA to understand what you got from your parents, what information in their genome they got from their parents all the way back. We're essentially doing exactly the same thing with the virus and doing a family tree, trying to trace back the ancestors of the virus that occurs in a patient that we're looking at at this moment in time. And the idea there is that by understanding where the virus came from, we can get an idea of how it's being transmitted from person to person.
Narrator: What does it really mean to have different versions of Covid-19 out there?
Sam Robson: So I guess to answer that, it's probably worth just mentioning very briefly what a virus is and what it does.
Sam Robson: I mean, a virus is essentially a small microorganism whose entire purpose in life is to make new copies of itself. And the way that it works, I mean, in this particular case, it binds to our cells and unfortunately, it binds to cells in our lungs, which is why we end up with the sort of problems that we see with coughs and with respiratory issues. It injects its own genome into our cells and its genome is what's called an RNA rather than the DNA. An RNA is kind of the intermediary between our DNA, so the blueprint, and proteins, which are kind of the functional parts of the way that our cells work. So this RNA enters into our cells and our cells can't tell the difference between these RNAs and our own RNAs. So it just makes more copies of them and it turns them into proteins. And those proteins, literally, all they do is come together to form a new version of the virus. And that whole process results in lots of new versions of the virus, which then end up being spread around to new areas of the body and then through to new individuals as well. So, essentially, what it's doing is it's taking its genome and copying it multiple times.
Narrator: And I understand that that potentially may, that knowledge may then enable you in some way to develop something that uses tracking so that you can predict then, knowing where it's come from and what it's done and how it works, you can predict how Covid-19 might spread in the future. Have I understood that correctly?
Sam Robson: What we're trying to do at the moment is to understand the spread of the virus, not just in the UK but in the entire, across the world. And the project that I'm working on is also part of a large national effort called the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which is a consortium of about 20 different sequencing centres around the country that are all working together to, essentially, try and create surveillance of the entire UK population almost in real-time. So as individuals have Covid-19 testing done, we're essentially taking the kind of leftover from the test that's carried out on them and sequencing it to find out which particular version of the virus these people have. And by looking at that throughout the entire UK, we can understand how it's spread over time. So by looking at a time course, so if we look over the entire time of the pandemic and we see certain versions of the virus originated up in this area of the country, but after a few weeks we start seeing them further down south, we can start to understand what processes have driven that virus to transmit from one area of the country to another. And what's really interesting is trying to understand the effects of things such as social distancing, lockdown, all of the interventions that are put in place to help prevent that transmission. We can really get a feeling for the effect that that has on transmission of the virus throughout the country. Changing the ability of people to travel from country to country had an impact on the transmission of the virus. And really understanding all of this information lets us understand how the virus was able to spread and become the pandemic that we see today, which means that we can now be ready for it in case anything happens again. And what that means is not only are we able to, sort of, give this surveillance across the entire UK, we can be looking at targeted groups as well. So if we start to see hotspots occur in factory settings or care homes or hospital wards, anything along those lines where we're seeing large numbers of people showing signs of Covid-19, we're able to go in and find out is that local transmission occurring, an outbreak that might lead to something worse in the community, in which case, rather than making the entire country go on lockdown, we can have a more targeted approach?
Narrator: Based on what you know and can see so far, are there versions that tend to have a stronger effect on people or is that really more down to the individual and how their body is equipped to cope with it?
Sam Robson: It's a really interesting question and something that we desperately need an answer to. So this is very much what the aim of the project that we set up was to do. So we're linking the information that we take about the virus itself, we're linking that to outcomes for the patient. So we desperately want to find out, is there any evidence that certain versions of the virus are more or even less potent than others? And the COG UK, they're working with Public Health England to try and assess this information using as large a data set as possible. So it's a very complex question, I think is the difficult part, and as time goes on, we're going to start to see more and more evidence of effects. So information that we've seen already, information that suggests that certain blood types might have something to do with how you deal with the virus moving forwards.
Narrator: Thanks, Sam, and good luck to him. That's just one example of the work that Sam and many other colleagues are doing to help save lives and make our world safer. Finally, how can we better manage ourselves and our relationships through change and disruption? If an already busy family life, work or social schedule has been thrown into chaos this year, this one is for you. Did you notice that you were more tired during the lockdown period earlier this year? Perhaps you've spotted some differences in the way your body and mind are working since we began to adapt to a new, distanced manner of living. Dr John Leech is Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science. And Dr Emma Maynard is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Sociology.
Narrator: Thank you both for coming together to talk about the psychological impacts of coronavirus today. Would you mind just introducing yourselves and tell us a little bit about what your research background is?
Emma Maynard: Hello, I'm Dr Emma Maynard. I'm a Senior Lecturer in education in the School of Education and Sociology, and I'm a chartered psychologist. And my research background is a round complex families. So families who experience a range of different health issues and social care issues and their children. And I work with their city council and directly with children and producing their own research as well.
Narrator: Thank you, Emma. And John, what's your what's your sort of potted history?
John Leach: My main area of work is looking at the psychological aspects of human survival, how people survive, and more importantly, how they do not survive. And also looking at the cognitive and neurocognitive aspects of human performance in extreme environments.
Narrator: John, I'd like to start with you. Why were people feeling tired than usual during lockdown?
John Leach: They were saying they were feeling tired. Not everybody was, of course, but actually it wasn't a tiredness they were experiencing, it was more a weariness.
John Leach: So you had a physical weariness that came on and a mental weariness and the physical weariness really came about because you're not as active as they were normally, whether you are positively active as in, going to the gym, doing hard work, running and that sort of thing, or, you know, more passively active, such as your normal commuting run, you know, getting up in the morning and doing the things. And there's an old saying that energy brings energy, and that's correct. Now, if you're not engaging in physical activity of some sort, your energy levels go down. And when your energy levels go down, your motivational levels go down. So what they're feeling is not strictly a tiredness. It's it's a weariness.
Narrator: Yes, that makes sense. Are there other kinds of mental strains that a change in routine like the sudden change of lockdown places on people who what's sort of more normal events might that be comparable to in terms of the effect.
John Leach: If you look at this area of weariness and tiredness that's being reported, from the mental side of it, this is quite similar to what has been commonly reported in other isolated situations, such as people who are working on polar stations in the Arctic or the Antarctic, and they go into lockdown over winter. It was commonly reported from polar camps and many studies have been done into it to try and solve it, that a condition they called ennui, which I think we know. So we had some mental weariness, you couldn't think of anything. They lost the motivation to do things even though they had good intent, they weren't motivated to do it. And when you went into the more extreme areas that I normally work in, such as the prisoner of war camps or death camps, it was identified that within just a few days none of the prisoners were going down with what the medical officers called a fatal withdrawal, which are now starting to understand. So you have this mental awareness and ennui setting in.
John Leach: See one of the things you've got coming out here is that you are trying to adapt to a new situation and situation that is unwanted. Right, we don't want to be in this situation, but we're in it. And in order to do that, you have to develop this new routine because you've got to adapt to that situation. And in order to do that, you've got to put time and effort into it, mental effort into it, and that uses up mental energy. The brain is the most energy-intensive organ in the body, about a third of our brain in the frontal regions, technically the prefrontal cortex, but about a third of our brain is there to enable us to think ahead to plan for the future. That's what we do a lot of time in. The other two-thirds of the brain is there to handle the day to day interaction with your environment and the routine things, stuff that you don't have to (in inverted commas) "think about". And whether it's from deciding you want to have a cup of tea and you can go through making a cup of tea while doing other things or commuting to work, after you've committed to work and back a few times, you don't have to think about it. When you do have to think about it and your routines have gone, you've got to create new ones, those frontal lobes, that high energy part of the brain comes back into play. And because it's so high, so energy-intensive and resource-intensive, then you get a mental weariness and a mental tiredness that comes out of it. And I did a lot of work with hostages, returning hostages, for example, and going through those, as well as other military personnel and civilian personnel, and one of the things that happens is that after the initial shock, your world has basically gone upside down. It is often an inability to think ahead. You can think in the present, then you tend to start thinking in the immediate past and then you start thinking in the longer past. And only later on are you able to think back into the future. But again, it's bit by bit, it's a gradual development of future thinking. And of course, what we have here is a situation where we don't know where that future is or certainly, we went into lockdown, we didn't know what their future is. And it's interesting, I been speaking to some people, they're starting to perk up now because we're starting to see that there's a way out of it.
Narrator: Yeah, that's fascinating and actually quite reassuring. Now, Emma, talking of change of routine and weariness, I suspect some of the weariest people around right now are those parents who overnight found themselves having to balance massive changes in their work and in their lives with a much more, I guess, how can we put this, labour-intensive form of parenting perhaps than they were doing before. How is this lockdown been affecting children? What do we know about that?
Emma Maynard: Well, I think the points that John's made about how we think and how we respond to the world around us are really pertinent for children. And just John's comments about how the majority of our brain is taken up by the here and now. Children are fantastic at living in the here and now and not so good on the long term planning. And obviously, when we talk about children, we can very quickly start conflating what happens to a 3 year old with a 17 year old. But, you know, you think of that massive expanse of development, but across that generation of children, they have been absolutely usurped by this pandemic. So everything that punctuate children's lives was thrown out of the window and the to-ing and fro-ing between whether or not they're going back to school, there are huge discussions to be had around there about how children cope with routine and cope with the immediate changes in their environment and how unsettling that is. So, you know, yeah, I think absolutely labour-intensive for those children as well as for those parents. I think, you know, they are one of the groups of society that we could honestly say, I think have been probably hardest hit and have lost most in this pandemic is children displaced from school.
Narrator: Just picking up on that piece around how children perceive time and how they live in the moment, are there things that we should be particularly mindful of when it comes to understanding how a child's brain will interpret time and structure and routine?
Emma Maynard: For a start, we don't, we're not born with an innate sense of time, it's something that we learn. And children even as young as 3 and 4, they have the ability to organise their memories and work out what happened sequentially to, you know, to an extent. But also that heavy structure that comes into children's days organises their time for them and it breaks them down very symbolically. So they have break times and playtimes and bells go every 40 minutes, you know, so there are things that signify to them and also teach a management of their time. So on the one sense, think of then of what they've lost in organising their time and the lack of routine that that then triggers and that comes with its own issues. And the other way we can think about that is that they have far less life experience in which to absorb the last 3/4 months of lockdown. So it will feel to children like a much longer period of time, then it will seem to adults. And for the youngest children, you know, they will, their memories of life before lockdown will be that much less clear. For our young people, of course, that's quite a different thing. You have a much more mature, established way of understanding, time and perspective and so on.
Narrator: Are you able to tell us anything about how people either are or perhaps how people should explain these changes in the world to children without creating anxiety for them?
Emma Maynard: Well, one of the golden rules we tend to live by in working with children and families is that if children are asking you clear questions, they're ready to hear the answer. And I do believe that we need to be honest and bring children into our communication, partly because the access that we all have to news is absolutely saturating. It's very difficult for us to turn off all channels of news and so if children are going to be around that, they then need an adult who is going to help them process that sensitively and in an age-appropriate way. So, you know, questions are going to come up and I think it's important that they're with us on this journey. I'm really struck by the sense of responsibility that our young people have shown in the main by adhering to the lockdown, you know, big teenagers that actually, if they chose otherwise, no parent could really sort of contain them. And they've shared that with us and so they deserve to be brought into that conversation and have, you know, respect for the questions that they have. And we need to take responsibility in helping them through what is a very emotionally challenging time.
Narrator: This is a big question, but what kind of impact do you think might be felt long term for children?
Emma Maynard: Those smallest children, I think the biggest issues are going to be transitioning out of their routine and then back into it, but they are not going to remember this in the same way as our older young people and those I sort of keep referring to as the accidental leavers, the children at the top of primary school, the GCSE young people and the a level young people are missing their rites of passage. And those older teenagers are much more able to project into the future, and their future feels very uncertain to them at this moment. And in adolescence, we feel very uncertain anyway, our friendships are incredibly important to us in developing our sense of identity and our security in place in the world and all of that has been ripped out from under them. And they're old and wise enough to know that we don't have all the answers. Coming through childhood, you're used to adults generally being able to tell you what's going to happen and right now we can't. And we're asking them to join with us in their adult level of thinking, but they're not developmentally ready to do that. But for our teenagers, it isn't, it is absolutely stratospheric in their lived experience right now.
Emma Maynard: I think this absolutely will be an indelible mark on them. But we mustn't conflate that with necessarily being disastrous for them. You know, these young people will come through having lived the most extraordinary experience at this time in their lives and it is a real opportunity to develop resilience around them.
Narrator: Yeah, John, in terms of loss, I think one of the hardest experiences for a lot of people will have been having to grieve a loved one, in many cases without even having been able to to say goodbye or even to attend the funeral at the same time as coping with this dramatic change to routine and with the huge uncertainty about their own futures. Are there things that people can do when those traditional support systems can't be reached?
John Leach: Well, it actually I am one of those people you've just you just described. My father died of covid related illness about 6 weeks ago.
Narrator: I'm so sorry.
John Leach: I was prevented from attending the funeral on more than one reason. I was fortunate in this case that my eldest daughter was able to go along and attend so his granddaughter was there. And while she was there, she managed with you know, she got permission and she discreetly live-streamed the funeral. So I was actually able to watch the actual burial taking place and what was going on and to an extent to take part in it on that. And I think what I would suggest, if that can be done, that makes, it eases things. It's not ideal, but it does, it eases things. And then I would also say it's to make an event of it. It's like other things as well, if we got something that is important to us symbolically, we turn it into an event. It's difficult but not impossible if you're stuck on your own, you know, as I was and indeed am. But you can create an event around it. And you know, that simple thing just by raising – oh I got my dad's medals out as well. And, you know, similar thing when the coffin went in I raised a tot of rum to him, that was it, that made an event of it. And that signified it because what you're doing here, if you can make an event of the day, then you are starting to dominate that day. You're dominating that movement. You're giving that person control over the event. So the events are not just unfolding.
Narrator: That is fantastic advice. And thank you, John, for sharing that with us as well. So sorry for your loss. I wonder if you, John and you Emma, have any advice for people. This has obviously been a really stressful, anxious time. And I suspect you both agree that it's impossible to prevent feelings of stress and anxiety, they're natural human emotions. But are there things people can do to stop, I suppose, falling into the habit of being stressed, of being anxious, letting those emotions take over?
Emma Maynard: I think one of the things I'd say about that is that it would be very strange if we weren't stressed and anxious in this situation. We're looking at a tremendous amount of threat on a global and unprecedented scale. So I think one of those things is about saying, do you know what? It's really normal to feel stressed and anxious about this and that that might help take away some of the panic that people feel when they're feeling stressed and anxious is actually, you know, this is a normal response and this is about, you know, helping yourself keep safe. And the other thing is about diffusing that stress so that we can, you know, by talking by connecting with people because isolation has obviously been a huge factor in this, but connecting with people where we can and by keeping mentally and physically active. Those are great ways of sort of relieving the stress as it starts to risk overflowing and trying to keep it in balance. And one of the great things about this pandemic, I think if I can be so bold as to say that, is that we've slowed down a bit and that might give us some more space for actually a little bit of self care, a time for reflection and so on.
Narrator: I agree. John, do you have anything to add to that?
John Leach: I would say, remember, this situation is temporary and there'll be a new normal, but it would be a better new normal that that is coming. And with that in mind, plan for the future. And, you know, just realise that what we're going through at the moment is a provisional existence, it's not a real existence it's a provisional one. There is a coming out of it. And and as I said a while ago, you know, find out those important days and turn them into an event. In both those ways if you impose a structure and impose a routine on your life, then that enables you to take back mental and emotional control over your life.
Narrator: You've been excellent barometers for the future. Your pointing in a very reassuring direction. So thank you ever so much, John and Emma, for your time.
Emma Maynard: That's a pleasure.
Narrator: Thank you to all my guests for taking the time to talk. And thanks to you for listening to this special launch episode of Life Solved. I hope you found some inspiration and ideas to help you out.
Narrator: Here at the University of Portsmouth, we're continuing to respond to the challenges and developments of the pandemic by bringing together different ideas and expertise from across our disciplines. If you enjoyed this, then please stay with us for the rest of this series as my colleagues and I bring you interviews and insight on research that looks set to change our lives.
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