While there is some confusion, as well as criticism, about the UK Government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak to date, and in particular the messaging of its containment and delay strategy, what is clear is that Covid-19 is going to affect a broad spectrum of the population, and for a very long time.
However, the burden of both the illness and the impact of social distancing and self-isolation strategies to avoid its spread will not be borne evenly across our communities.
Those most susceptible to severe and acute illness, and potentially life threatening symptoms, are the most vulnerable in our communities: the elderly, people with underlying health problems, and those with weaker immune systems, including, for example, the homeless. Advice around individual and family isolation and social distancing measures announced yesterday (16 March) present worries, inconvenience and very real problems for nearly everyone. Yet it is people on low incomes, insecure contracts and with little financial cushioning who will be hardest hit.
Government is focusing on the lack of capacity within the NHS for the predicted epidemic peak demand in terms of beds, equipment and, most importantly, staff, now probably only a few weeks away, but there is little corresponding focus on its ability to address the lack of in-built surge capacity in local authority responses and its appreciation of the function and role of ‘community’.
Solidarity in the face of coronavirus
Community resilience could be what sees us through the worst effects of Covid-19. While local authorities and the voluntary sector can and will provide services to our most vulnerable, many services that are now required to be mobilised have been hollowed out by funding cuts over the past years. Nearly every local authority has seen cuts of anything between 40 and 60 per cent in the last decade: local government public health departments had their budgets cut by 10 per cent in real terms.
Green parties across the UK have helpfully called for a Coronavirus Solidarity Pact, highlighting necessary state action by central government to ensure that vulnerable people are offered extensive protections and security, including measures such as: the suspension of no-fault evictions for anyone affected by coronavirus crisis; a freeze on rental payments; and an end to delay in benefit payments.
These calls are in addition to the more widely publicised demands for protecting small businesses and their employees, those on zero-hours contracts, the self-employed and freelancers. Even one of the long-standing Green solutions to tackling real poverty, the universal basic income (UBI), is being recognised as one of the simplest ways to make sure no one goes to work and spreads the virus when they should be self-isolating.
However, for the next few weeks, community resilience could be what counts for huge numbers of people: saving lives and keeping society together. Communities up and down the country must tap into the enormous amount of experience, knowledge and goodwill of individuals, which has proven time and again a latent force for good ready to be unleashed in situations of common adversity.
Notwithstanding the extra challenges that restrictions on physical social interaction create, people are finding creative ways of overcoming social distancing in other countries: near neighbours linking up for social contact, although singing across balconies is less feasible in the UK than in Italy, shopping for those isolated, lending out dogs for dog walking.
Even in the best case scenario there will be strain on the NHS: some patients, who would previously be cared for in hospital, may need to be looked after in their homes. This need for home care is unlikely to be completely met by existing adult social care and the response will need careful planning and require attention to issues such as safeguarding.
As others are pointing out, people whose jobs have disappeared even temporarily will need money to live on, but will soon also need a purpose. There needs to be a matching of the essential work required, from social care to production of essential items, to those with time on their hands who may turn out to be immune if they have recovered from the infection.
And virtual connections and smartphones provide us with wonderful platforms. Next Door can help us connect to those in our communities, and WhatsApp chat groups can ensure that every street is connected, can offer mutual support, and identify those outside such e-networks who will need personal support.
A welcome response
It is fantastic to now see spontaneous groups setting up to respond to support the most vulnerable: Covid-19 Mutual Aid is helping community-organising with prepared resources and guides for groups wanting to establish in any locality and for registering new groups on a national database.
In the UK some areas have already developed good local community infrastructure for previous civic emergencies, such as during flooding and loss of electricity and utilities. In Lancashire, Flood Resilience Groups have much to share about community coordination and contingency planning.
In the Lancaster district, one of our food banks is preparing emergency strategies for ensuring meals are provided to all children who would otherwise receive free school meals in the likely event of imminent school closures.
While individuals can proactively add to capacity of food banks and food clubs to deliver food as well as to replenish low stocks, there are some whose suffering will increase and who will be more difficult to identify and to reach: those experiencing domestic violence, for example, who rely on being able to get out of the house for relief or an abusive family member being away from the home.
For all of us this will be a time for both stringent self-care as well as looking out for our neighbours. The backbone of contingency responses to all the threats that coronavirus brings will be provided by communities. Community resilience is made up of self-care, individual acts of generosity and neighbourliness, as well as co-ordinated and maintained responses by groups in the voluntary sector providing for the physical (and mental) health and well-being of those most vulnerable.
Community resilience is what the world needs now. It may massively help reduce mortality, it will provide for the necessary longevity of response to coronavirus and will shape our ability to cope in the future, whatever the emergency dictates. It will also leave us better prepared for the longer-lasting and more fundamental climate crisis we will still face after Covid-19 has passed. The government would do well to review the relationship between the state and its communities: to acknowledge, support and invest in the community level.
Gina Dowding is a Green councillor on Lancashire County Council and a former MEP for the North West of England.