It was early on in the strange new world of lockdown life that I got a leaflet through the door.
“Feeling lonely? Need someone to pick up shopping or prescriptions while you self-isolate? Get in touch! We’re here to help!” It was signed off by some neighbours from the local estate, with details of a Whatsapp group to join, and made a nice change from the usual flurry of takeaway pizza menus and religious propaganda. I’d never even spoken to my neighbours before, let alone received overtures of kindness.
The leaflet’s provenance was one of the hundreds of mutual aid groups that have sprung up across the country in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Spontaneous yet largely well-organised, these groups have displayed impressive efficiency in managing to connect locals wanting to help with those who need it most during lockdown. It is just one of myriad ways in which society has seemed to, almost overnight, become kinder – more willing to love thy collective neighbour than ever before.
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“We have seen a demographic who perhaps weren’t as active in community settings before, recognise the crisis and want to volunteer,” confirms Matthew Bolton, executive director of Citizens UK, which organises communities to act together for power, social justice and the common good.
Of course, there are those stalwarts in every community who are actively involved in improving life on a local level, with or without a global pandemic. Many of these people were well-positioned to mobilise when the current crisis hit – but plenty more who wouldn’t normally participate or naturally consider themselves “do-gooders” were anxious to contribute something at a time when it felt like everything was spiralling out of control.
“What this crisis has shown us is the power of purpose,” the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) tells The Independent. “Through volunteering, communities are coming together to help, do good and make positive changes in their neighbourhoods. Across the UK we have seen countless examples of this.”
And indeed, there are examples to be held up and marvelled at everywhere you look: Henbury and Brentry Community Council offering volunteers to supply emergency food packages and arrange foodbank referrals for those who are struggling financially; volunteers at the Lincolnshire Integrated Voluntary Emergency Service delivering food parcels and medication and working alongside NHS colleagues to run Covid-19 swabbing stations; volunteers with Yeleni Therapy and Support in Hereford maintaining vital communication with people with cancer and their carers.
The question is, how to harness all that positive energy going forward? How do we maintain momentum once lockdown has lifted? With the government announcement on 11 May that some restrictions would be eased in a three-stage plan designed to return the UK to “normality”, it’s easy to slide back into a “business as usual” mindset – one in which the generosity of spirit inspired by this crisis might gradually fade.
One solution is for councils to see the wealth of opportunity that’s in front of them and grab it with both hands, according to the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a nationwide network of local authorities and think tank arguing for more power to be entrusted to communities.
“Ever since the pandemic started, we’ve seen mutual aid groups springing out of the soil overnight,” says researcher Simon Kaye. “The best councils are already thinking about how to embed these groups and projects, how to build on them and develop them sustainably after the pandemic is over. But there’s an enormous range of response: some councils are engaging incredibly well, while others are failing to grasp the potential, and some are even picking holes in the community action rather than supporting it.”
And yet giving more autonomy to communities themselves had proved effective long before the current crisis. The Wigan Deal is often held up as the poster child for empowering people on the ground. Launched in 2011 off the back of huge funding cuts necessitated by the government’s austerity policy, it saw an explicit new social contract drawn up between the council and those who live and work in the area to “create a better borough”.
The result was a saving of £115m alongside much higher community engagement: “You can see the effects during the pandemic,” says Simon. “The local council is looking for creative ways to support the community, enabling them to respond more efficiently. There’s an incredible level of engagement.”
It makes sense: locals are in a much better position to know what’s needed on the ground than a top down approach, after all. But what if your local authority isn’t supportive? One clear message from the experts is to act small – performing what Simon calls “microscopic acts of kindness”. All kinds of needs have been exposed during this crisis, whether it’s the loneliness of an isolated neighbour or someone vulnerable who struggled to get to the shops even prior to lockdown. Continuing to support those nearby is a tiny but powerful act.
“If people wish to volunteer, the simplest way to get involved is to look out for their neighbours and offer help with shopping and other errands,” agrees NCVO. “If you don’t have a particular charity you want to support in your local area, contact your local Volunteer Centre or visit the Do-it website. They can help you find out where your help is most urgently needed.”
The important thing is to set yourself up for participating in a sustainable way – longevity should be prized over a knee-jerk response. Citizens UK’s Matthew Bolton says: “Start with what you are interested in. What has caught your heart about this crisis? Because if you’re going to get involved in a meaningful, sustained way, it needs to be something you care about.” NCVO reiterates that taking your time is no bad thing either: “This is a marathon not a sprint. If you’re thinking about volunteering now but can’t find the right opportunity or don’t have the time, why not put a note in your diary to look again in three months or six months?”
Campaigning, too, can be just as important as volunteering. Citizens UK is particularly interested in how the weekly Clap for Carers, which has captured the imagination of the nation, can be translated into action. “There is this public awareness and sympathy for our key workers, the invisible people who make society work. People are suddenly much more aware of low-paid essential workers – and we really want to see how many clappers we can turn into campaigners for a living wage for key workers. This will be a defining feature of whether this ‘crisis spirit’ translates into meaningful difference.”
UK-wide, people are invited to get involved as campaigners or volunteers through the organisation’s Living Wage movement, or to support its numerous campaigns to “help end social injustices and make our communities safer, kinder and more united”.
And on an individual level, there is plenty of good we can do every day based on the products we buy, from what we eat and drink to the clothes we wear. Lizzie Rivera, founder of sustainable lifestyle website Live Frankly, which connects value-based brands with increasingly conscious consumers, believes one of the most powerful ways we can keep being kind after the pandemic is over is by becoming more discerning when we spend.
“The individual choices we make as consumers have a huge impact because brands respond very quickly to their customers’ buying habits,” she says. “We might say we want businesses to be more sustainable, but if we’re still buying unsustainable goods from brands, it sends the message we don’t really care – and so where’s their incentive to be ‘better’? We need to vote with our wallets.”
It won’t be easy to keep from sliding into old habits once we feel safe again. But, after five years of political turbulence, fighting to maintain and protect the local connections forged under lockdown could be the one thing that has a chance of healing old wounds. “There’s a lot more that brings us together than divides us,” adds NLGN’s Simon Kaye. “All those polarising issues – Brexit, leadership contests, the election – they all evaporate when we think about how we can help our neighbour.”