These are interesting times for community engagement and community work generally. Community centres, toddler groups, sports centres, many voluntary organisations, and places of worship are all closed (except for use as foodbanks in some cases) – neighbourhood summer festivals are pretty much all cancelled. While we are all facing the same storm, the statistics do not suggest that we are all in the same boat – and many in vulnerable and marginalised communities are suffering the impacts of a global pandemic more severely and in higher numbers that those in better off neighbourhoods. Many people in lower paid jobs have been working all through the crisis as key workers, often without consistent access to effective PPE; and many are now having to return to their jobs or risk losing them since the government began an ‘easing of the lockdown’ in England.
Many people in all areas and from all backgrounds have lost their lives – even the official UK statistics, which do not yet include many of the dead in care homes and others who were not confirmed to have Covid-19 before death, put us at well over half the civilian dead in the whole of the Second World War, and approaching five times the total British deaths in all wars since then (as of 26 May). I suspect that the numbers are too big to really contemplate, for most of us; and they are dwarfed by the numbers of people who have survived Covid-19 and are now facing perhaps very long-term physical and psychological health impacts.
All of these figures appear to be consistently proportionately higher for BAME communities, people living in densely populated areas, and other groups already disadvantaged by inequality and austerity. Coventry’s Loraine Mponela has written powerfully about the impact on some of our most vulnerable migrant communities; Mark Williams pulls out the statistics about differential impact and social class; Nandini Archer spells out how decades of underfunding have led to a crisis in domestic violence; while Frances Ryan writes regularly about how disabled people have been forgotten about in public policy and discussion about the pandemic.
A very tough time for many, a strange time for all. And yet many people have stepped up, as people often will, to take care of friends and family, neighbours and strangers. Many people have a little or a lot more time available in the place where they live, as they have been working from home, furloughed, or unable to find any work; there has been an upwelling of support for NHS workers and others, including the low-paid; and an exploration of possibilities for the rebuilding of neighbourhood community in many places. The retired with spare time and cash are unable to spend it on travel, and while many of them are self-isolating many are also engaging in online community building activities – although the 7.5% of UK adults who have never used the internet include many of the retired who live in or close to poverty, particularly women.
In response to Stuart Croft’s fourth original strategic priority for the University of Warwick during the pandemic (to be good neighbours) I have been actively involved in Coventry’s Mutual Aid networks: city-wide, including in trying to bring ward-level organisers together for mutual learning and support; and in my local ward, where we have a group of over 30 volunteers who have been making face-masks for care home workers who have run out of PPE, as well as assisting with shopping and delivering for vulnerable local people. Mutual Aid groups are volunteer-led initiatives, groups of people in neighbourhoods across the UK who join together to support one another, meeting vital community needs without the help of official bodies, aiming to prioritise those who are most vulnerable or otherwise unable to access help through regular channels. There is more information (including how to find or set up a group local to you) available at https://covidmutualaid.org/.
I have also been trying to help by hosting Zoom meetings for some community groups, and have introduced a number of colleagues and community contacts to the basics of using Zoom for effective and inclusive meetings (do contact me if you are involved in a group that could do with a brief and friendly introduction to this). With colleagues, I run a weekly Zoom drop-in discussion and support forum for staff (and PhD students) across the University who are volunteering to help their local communities or others affected by the pandemic in a variety of ways.
Novels, films, plays, scholarly studies, children’s stories, visual arts and family anecdotes will all look back on this period in the future. The stories they will tell are not all yet written, and we can all play a part in there being more of the hopeful, encouraging and generous ones in our communities, no matter what self-serving, confused or contradictory leadership may be offered at a higher level. And that will make a real difference.
This blog was written by Mark Hinton, Community Engagement Development Manager, at CLL.