Saturday, 9 May 2020

This crisis has shown how many people were only just about managing

Mandy Cheetham, Research Associate from Teesside University, on the community response to the coronavirus crisis


I have been working as an embedded researcher at Larkspur House, a community project run by the charity Edberts House, funded by Big Lottery, to build happier, healthier and safer communities since October 2019. I started there, not long after it opened, to explore what difference the project is making, and fieldwork was well underway when COVID-19 struck. The project reluctantly had to take the decision to close and the groups and activities temporarily stopped. Like many others, I started working from home, feeling helplessly disconnected from people that I’d got to know, and wondering how everything was going.

A phone call from a colleague at 6pm on 30 March changed all that with an invitation to get involved in the multi-agency response to the COVID-19 crisis. Larkspur House was to morph into one of nine community hubs co-ordinated by Gateshead Council distributing food parcels, delivering prescriptions and offering support to people who are medically and socially vulnerable. I jumped at the chance, and since then, it has been something of a rollercoaster. We are a small, multi-disciplinary team, with complementary skills, talents and experience in an extremely busy hub. We phone people who have contacted the council for help to see what they need. In 4 weeks, we have delivered 250 food parcels to approximately 1000 people in the local community and three neighbouring estates. It’s important, exhausting, rewarding and at times frustrating work. It has revealed enormous generosity, neighbourliness, resilience, kindness and anxiety in the communities we serve. The crisis has also shown how many people were only just about managing day to day.

Since the lockdown started, I have listened to people who are fearful for their lives, worried about how they, their families and friends are going to manage through this crisis; the precariousness and embarrassment of people having to admit they are down to the last packet of pasta; people having to borrow from neighbours, family and friends; at the end of their resilience facing additional hurdles; people relying on Universal Credit, who’ve been sanctioned pre-lockdown and whose money has been stopped for 4 weeks during lockdown; the family with 4 children under 7 whose utility company cut off their gas supply leaving them without hot water or heating; the response of an unflappable team member who calmly and unquestioningly dropped off a food parcel and topped up the gas meter at 9pm on a Friday night to help a family through the weekend.

People who are routinely going out of their way to help people through this; pharmacists working flat out to process and deliver prescriptions, family members in touch with concerns about parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who they cannot help for fear of putting them at risk. The kindness and dependability of the volunteers from the estate who deliver daily packed lunches to children on free school meals, including on Good Friday and Easter Monday. The same volunteers who methodically planned, packed and delivered more than 300 craft packs to go out with donations of Easter eggs in the local area. The drivers and volunteers delivering the food; the unquestioning generosity of supermarket managers in local shops who I have approached for donations of bread, eggs, toiletries, nappies, baby wipes and fresh vegetables to include in the emergency boxes we distribute. The teachers, assistants and school staff looking after key workers’ children and children of families who need extra help. The humour of the Larkspur craft and natter group, formed by staff in response to being unable to meet weekly, so people can offer encouragement and support remotely, sharing tips, knitting hearts and NHS bears for patients and their families. People’s willingness to help where they can in creative and diverse ways; the unrelenting drive and ambition to help people through this awful, unprecedented crisis.

In such a short space of time, it has revealed so much of what can be achieved when we pull together, build on the trusting relationships and networks we have developed, sometimes over years, with respect, kindness, compassion, thoughtful leadership and careful co-ordination, non-judgemental and flexible approaches. It is, and continues to be a privilege to be part of this team. It couldn’t have happened in the way it has without the community members, staff and volunteers from Larkspur House whose nimble, agile response has made a tangible difference to local people. Relationships have been strengthened and cemented; bonds that will last.

Some people are saying the world has changed forever. I hope it is for the better. I hope the academic and research community has been able to show what a difference we can make when we work together, in collaboration with local communities, responsive voluntary organisations working alongside staff from local government, NHS, and education. Universities can claim to be part of a wider civic response, and at times like this, we can contribute in multiple ways. Whether our area of research is on vaccines, testing, contact tracing, epidemiology, modelling, food poverty, Universal Credit, welfare reform, nutrition or any other area of public health, there are multiple ways to be useful in the short, medium and long term. It involves working with others, as part of teams generating solutions together. We need to accept we do not have all the answers, we are part of a jigsaw of possible responses. That might mean moving out of our comfort zone, rolling up our sleeves and packing food parcels with colleagues and communities who will remember you were there with them when it mattered.

There are wider issues of course, longer term policy issues to focus our attention on, including policy issues to do with Universal Credit, welfare reform and its impact, which pushed people to the edge of coping before COVID-19 started. But for now, there are more pressing issues of food and prescriptions to deal with. Your local area will have its own responses and networks in place, formal and informal. If you’re shopping for others, that’s great. Can you safely check on neighbours around you? When you’re in the supermarket, foodbanks need your donations more than ever. Find out what they need. For the hubs, tinned meat, tinned fish, coffee, UHT milk, cereal, washing up liquid, shower gel and shampoo are useful. If you are in a position to donate, please do. Find out where your local voluntary organisations are helping and how you can support them. If you want to find out more about the charities involved in the Gateshead hubs, visit https://www.ageuk.org.uk/gateshead/help-pages/coronavirus/ or http://edbertshouse.org

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