Important lessons from a traumatic year

4 Dec 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Dec 2020

Pic: Unsplash

The vaccination programme marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic just as the shortening days herald the end of what has been an unforgettably traumatic year.

2020 will be a year that most people will want to put behind them. But we shouldn’t think like that – there have been too many important lessons we can learn from the pandemic. 

This week a report from the Carnegie Trust was published which seeks to capture some of them. 

The COVID-19 and Communities Listening Project states that as the first lockdown began: “We were struck by stories in the press, and in our local areas, of people, streets and agencies working together. We wondered if something very important might be happening: something that we could learn from in our quest to create a fairer and thriving society.”

So it started a series of conversations in widely different communities, from the Glens of Antrim to inner city London to hear about how local organisations were adapting and responding to the emergency. 

What emerges is a shared passion for the potential for change. Central to this is the need for a permanent reversal in the relationship between the state and communities. Carnegie calls this  an Enabling State where people and communities gain more control over the public services they receive to improve their own wellbeing.

The report is also an important document of historical record – charting how separate communities responded in remarkably similar ways to an unprecedented crisis. 

It evokes the vast surge of energy within communities when the outbreak started as charities, local authorities and individuals adapted at pace to emerging needs. It records the tiredness that many individuals were feeling by the summer as the toll of work and pressures on personal lives were beginning to take their toll. 

Then there was a phase when organisations prepared for the Autumn resurgence of the disease – and all along there were worries about whether front line organisations would even be able to survive: “For many, there was also an existential worry about funding and the viability of operating models: many organisations lost revenue, some anticipated future cuts and closures, and others were concerned about the potential impact of losing community spaces.”

At the start of the pandemic the priority was to cater for basic needs. Those considered vulnerable to Covid-19 were told to stay in their homes for 12 weeks. Government, local authorities and charities immediately stepped in to help ensure people had access to food and other essentials. 

Yet even before that the response on the ground was astonishing. Support groups sprang up everywhere to help vulnerable people in their areas. Individuals offered to shop, take meals and pick up prescriptions. The word kindness re-entered our vocabulary.  All of a sudden new people were getting involved in community action. 

The support rapidly broadened to helping people with social needs, not just food – and those supported were not just those shielding but people with disabilities and those with more complex long-term needs.  People who were previously under the radar of support services in the public and third sectors were being identified and helped. 
Everywhere a sense of community was growing. By June two in three people said it is important to live in an area with a strong sense of community, and more than before reported they can change things around them. The report cites people falling back in love with their neighbourhoods and surrounding areas, places they had previously taken for granted. 

However problems were mounting too. Within a few weeks of the start of lockdown Carnegie’s research team were hearing about how changes in work patterns, separation from loved ones, money worries, the impact of furlough and of isolation were corroding peoples’ feelings. The extent of the mental ill health crisis we now face was beginning to emerge. 

During and after lockdown all sorts of services switched to digital. For many it was a lifeline. The report has praise for the Nine Glens website in Cushendall which became a focal point for local people. For example it ran a photography competition on young people’s experience of lockdown. 

Whilst for many digital interaction was a game-changer it also had the consequence of escalating the digital divide. For example 65% of children in Camden had no access to a device at home or school. Similarly lack of digital access prevented many from accessing mental health support and for claiming benefits such as Universal Credit. 

The pandemic has served to emphasise how the means to access the internet and all the services it provides is now an essential utility, like water, electricity and sanitation and needs to be treated as such by the authorities. 

There was also a very painful reminder of just how vulnerable so many of us are, especially those who have no savings and depend on zero hours contracts. The fragility of our economy was brutally exposed. 

Per the report: “In one conversation, a member of the VCSE in a rural area with pockets of deprivation said: ‘people who used to donate to food banks now use their services. They have no good quality jobs and the community has low resilience.’”

Particular groups were shown to be especially at risk. For example when schools closed it was difficult for agencies to contact children who don’t feel safe at home to check on how they were. The same also applied to victims of domestic abuse.

Throughout the report there is high praise for the VCSE sector. It mobilised more quickly than public authorities and showed creativity, flexibility and its deep knowledge of community needs. Sports clubs, church organisations and community groups were especially impressive. 

The ranks of charities were rapidly swelled with volunteers responding to calls for help with many reports of how much value new recruits got from helping their communities. 
Fermanagh Community Transport provides one of the case studies in the report.  During the emergency it switched from a transport provider to be at the forefront of the logistics, transport, and delivery of goods such as food boxes and prescriptions to those in need. At the height of the pandemic, the charity delivered over 8,000 food parcels. Similarly the Fermanagh Trust reoriented its staff to develop a new befriending service, Connect Fermanagh, to support those who were vulnerable or isolated, and to establish friendships between residents during the emergency.

Given the pivotal role that the sector performed and the ingenuity that so many organisations displayed it is hard to escape the conclusion that we should look to change the way we fund the sector permanently – away from project funding to a more sustainable model, supporting core costs. 

However this is resolved it is perverse that organisations that were doing so much to support communities spent most of the period fearing for their future existence. Whatever the route taken the sector has demonstrated its value on an unprecedented scale and requires the financial support not just to exist but to grow and flourish. 

Another big learning from the pandemic is the effectiveness of true partnership working. As the severity of the emergency became clear traditional boundaries broke down. 
The report states: “A significant finding was the strengthening of relationships between the VCSE sector and local authorities. Virtually all people we talked to had experienced growing local partnerships. One community arts organisation described how traditionally the local authority found it hard to let go and for communities to take more control - ‘when something happens, you can’t really push it without the local authority trying to either take it over or make it something different’ - but that changed at the start of the pandemic, when the VCSE sector was able to act rapidly in a way that the council could not.”

Local authorities were seeing themselves as an empowering rather than controlling force. And partnerships flourished between charities too – even those that have traditionally competed for funding. 

Sadly by the Autumn the report sees all this co-operation fraying at the edges, with reports of a decline in the feeling that all agencies were tackling shared issues. There are questions of how to maintain the high levels of energy displayed earlier in the year as exhaustion sets in – and in the case of many VCSE existential fears of what the future holds for them. 

This is precisely why the Carnegie report is so important – it tells a remarkable story which should not be forgotten, and there are very clear lessons of what needs to happen next. We cannot just drift back to where we were before. 

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