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Resilience & Coping Strategies for Well-Being during the First Covid-19 Wave in Serbia*

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis, countries differ in their pre-pandemic circumstances & in the way they have responded to pandemic, which in turn influence different experiences and outcomes of the crisis. While there have been many studies all over the world focusing on negative physical, as well as mental health consequences of pandemic; however, our research focused on the factors that contribute to resilience during the pandemic in the multi problem context of socioeconomic and political situation in Serbia. The aim of our study was to explore experiences, well-being and coping strategies of different age groups who managed to maintain good functioning without particular mental health difficulties during the first wave of the pandemic. Serbia introduced preventive measures during the first wave of pandemic: From March 15th until May 6th 2020, those included the closure of borders, public transportation restrictions, curfew from 5 pm to 5 am and lockdown during the weekends that lasted for 60 hours continuously. People older than 65 were prohibited from leaving their homes completely (later mitigated by allowing them to go on Fridays 4 am to 7 am, to do grocery!). Shopping malls, restaurants and other services were closed, and a ban on gatherings of more than five people was introduced, too.

In order to better understand the specific experiences of families during the pandemic and lockdown, we used qualitative methodology to conduct interviews focusing at three main topics: 1) the characteristics of life context before the pandemic; 2) changes in life quality during the pandemic, emotional reactions and coping strategies, and 3) expectations of the future- how the pandemic could affect their lives in the long run. Our sample consisted of 52 participants, a)15 typical emerging adults, age from 18 to 26 years b) 21 adults, age from 31 to 53 years and c)16 seniors, age from 65 to 87 years. None of participants, nor their close family members, had been infected with COVID-19 before data collection, which was during April and early May, 2020. As a result of thematic analysis, 5 main themes emerged:

1. Disruptions in everyday life and functioning

For students, changes were mostly related to their studies and disrupted socializing. Closing of universities, poor organization of online classes, the lack of daily structure and the lack of technical resources for online studying represented considerable obstacles to pursue education for many students. Despite they usually use online communication, most of them acknowledged that contact via social media cannot fully replace spending time in person.

For adults, changes in daily organizations were different. Most of them worked at home which was very difficult for them to work and at the same time to take care of younger children. If they had to go to work, they couldn’t leave children at home alone (kindergardens and schools were closed, too) and they couldn’t relay on their parents to look after their grandchildren due to the lockdown. Some of them lost their jobs temporarily, but at the same time, it was chance for them to spend more time with their children and families. 

Seniors were in unique situation because they were locked down/ quarantined. They were not allowed to go out, to take a walk or run a daily errands. If they didn’t have somebody to do that for them, it was very hard for them to satisfy their basic needs. All of that brought a feeling of injustice and violation of human rights that affected their dignity. Those who were more familiar with technology for online communication found more opportunities to structure their time and maintained social contact despite physical distancing.

2. Reaction to the pandemic as a health crisis

Concern for one’s own health appeared rarely in all groups. Generally, they were not prone to worry about themselves. Anyway, moderate, “healthy” concern prevails, which enable adequate responsible behavior. At the same time, participants worried about others- younger people worried about possibility of infecting older family members, and older people worried about younger ones, who are going out and were exposed to risk more.

3. Reactions to the restrictive measures as a source of frustration

There were two main sources of frustration: experience restrictive measures as oppressive and distrust of the media and government. The lockdown demanding complete quarantine for all people over 65 did not seem justified. The inability to go outside increased the frustration and tension. Patronizing attitude toward seniors provokes feeling of disrespect and humiliation, so some of them broke rules or disobeyed some measures without jeopardizing personal health or health of others. The inconsistency and inaccuracy of information contributed to distrust in the system and the media deepened fear and sense of uncertainty. Some participants perceived that the reports on increase in the number of infected people was presented in a biased manner. The decision to stop intensively looking for information was not to deny the seriousness nor withdraw from the situation, but rather a protective act to avoid getting overwhelmed by upsetting content.

4. Coping strategies for dealing with the crisis

Social communication and support of family and friends were recognized as crucial for mental health and well-being. That includes concrete help from family members, friends and neighbors who supplied seniors and expressed high level of solidarity and altruism. Also, the informal, emotional support or just exchanging of experiences during the crisis via different social media was the most important. They have been exchanging a lot of jokes, using humor as mature defense mechanism in difficult situations. Besides that, respect of preventive measures enable them feeling of control over the situation. Proactive coping skills included different activities and hobbies that structured their days in a worthwhile manner.

5. Expectations of the post-pandemic future

A moderate level of optimism makes the individual more resilient during a pandemic. The participants tended to see those changes as temporal and anticipated the life resuming back to normal. The current crisis was situated within a historical perspective, which indicate that human kind overcome crises every time, so there is no reason to expect anything different in the current situation. It enables the “normalization” of the pandemic crisis and points out to the historical evidence of the resilience of humanity.

*Post-script from Tamara: This blog and panel discussion draws from our research study, which has since been published in Serbian. We are preparing an integrative paper in English now. Since that study, we have done interviews again, 10 months later with the same people, to follow up, and which we hope to publish. Please feel free to email for further contact or questions about the research.

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