Humans of the North-West: COVID and communities
Illustration: Ailsa Critten

A community pandemic

The spirit of our communities is a formidable cornerstone of our society.

We’ve seen this throughout history, with communities coming together to rebuild the country after the war, and in the not-so-distant past, during times of distress and pain: the Grenfell Tower response is just one example. There is no doubt that in the UK, we have valued the power of a united society. However, it’s fair to say that in the past few decades, it seems as if we are generally living in a world where social cohesion is on a downward trajectory. In the wake of social upheavals, such as increased immigration, and huge political decisions- Brexit being the defining one- divisions in our community and in our country have largely widened. For a while, we were all fighting with each other whilst boxing ourselves into virtual factions.

Despite that, when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe, many of us put our keyboards down and decided to reach out to our fellow citizens- friend or foe. During this crisis, it must be recognised that we have slowly rekindled the concept of society, and have re-learnt the importance of our strong community spirit.

It’s no surprise that during the pandemic, we witnessed the best of our communities in Manchester coming together to take the most vulnerable under their wing. Throughout the North-West, our local champions took responsibility and organised support for them on every level, whether to help with the shopping; to aid with the finances, or even just volunteering to have a chat. 

Our northern communities are well-known for their generous and neighbourly nature. After all, up to 20,000 grassroots projects of varying sizes and interests take place in and around Manchester. That’s why during the coronavirus pandemic, our communities rose to the challenge magnificently by willingly putting themselves in harm’s way to ease the suffering of others. 

With the UK economy currently being hit by the worst economic contraction in 41 years; the government battling with missed opportunities, and hospitals preparing for a second wave, it’s easy to overlook the sheer importance of regional and local responses to the pandemic. Without such support, often organised by charities or local community Facebook groups, many of the 2.2 million people advised to shield at home would simply struggle to survive. 

Much of the local response to coronavirus, especially in the North-West, has been reliant on the ‘spontaneous volunteer’- those who aren’t ardent volunteers but have been inspired by the crisis to sacrifice their time for those less fortunate. The research conducted by Professor Duncan Shaw has been pivotal for the local and UK government to prepare to utilise the power of spontaneous volunteers. 

“When we did the original research, we were thinking of 100, maybe 200, volunteers spontaneously offering their help,” Professor Shaw says on the University of Manchester website which explained his influential work. “Then we saw a thousand appear in Chile last year, which wasn’t really in our thinking. The 750,000 volunteers for the NHS and countless others volunteering to other local organisations is awe-inspiring.”

Since the COVID-19 crisis took hold, Professor Shaw has been liaising with a number of local authorities, including in Greater Manchester, on how to maximise involvement with their new volunteer workforce. For him, it’s a scale-up of his research he never expected.

In a short space of time, millions of households felt the economic shocks of the lockdown, with some feeling it more than others. For example, in the first three weeks after the UK government introduced the ‘lockdown’, an estimated 7 million households had lost either a substantial part of all of their earned income as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis. With the government delaying proper support to those isolating or those whose incomes have taken a turn for the worse, our local communities didn’t stand back and watch their fellow neighbours suffer in pain and despair.

Instead, they stepped up to the task by taking them under their wing. Once again, with such startling statistics in the backdrop, this reinforces the significance of having strong communities. There’s no doubt that without the hard work of both charities and local organised support, many of the socially vulnerable would simply fall through the cracks unnoticed and unsupported. 

A local response

The work of well-established charities has been cherished during this global crisis. One institution providing beneficial support on both a local and national level has been Human Appeal. A global humanitarian faith-led organisation based in Cheadle, Greater Manchester, it’s clear that they’re no stranger when it comes to dealing with outbreaks, having previously dealt with malaria and dengue fever.

Their Coronavirus Emergency Appeal was launched in partnership with Age UK, in a bid to support the most vulnerable communities in the UK and across the world. Projects such as distributing urgently needed food parcels and hygiene kits in communities have been a source of salvation for the vulnerable and the elderly during the lockdown.

I had the opportunity to put questions to the Fundraising Manager at Human Appeal, Mohammad Abid Shah. For him, the charity was inspired to organise community support during the crisis after they saw a need— not just in their local community— but across the world. He also recognised the huge impact on the lives of thousands across the UK. “People have been forced to self-isolate for various reasons and many have lost their jobs,” he said. According to him, the charity’s main response in the UK has been to provide food parcels across the Midlands and North. These have been delivered to “various beneficiaries including the elderly, the homeless… and people on low incomes.” As well as that, they’ve been providing hot meals to front-line NHS staff.

It was striking how powerfully he hoped that community support will play a larger role in the post-pandemic era. For him, “the impact of community support is there to see. Generally, people seem to be more aware of those around them.” He also remarked that despite us being restricted to our homes during the lockdown, many of us are probably interacting with our neighbours more than ever. It is clear that the significance of community spirit, particularly here in Manchester has grown exponentially. It is something we should proudly carry with us as we move into the next phase of the pandemic and beyond.

A lot of help for both key workers and those isolating was organised by neighbours and friends. Facebook groups were created in an attempt to bring the locals together in the virtual world. Being part of a local group myself, I was truly humbled by the responses on it. For every request uploaded, at least six people would selflessly volunteer immediately. For me, it was incredibly inspiring to see people going out of their way to look after their neighbours— even if they didn’t know them.

I spoke to Jen Savaris, the admin and creator of the Didsbury, Withington and Burnage COVID-19 Community Help Group, who explained why such groups are vital for our community. “It’s very important that the community and locals come together to offer support during tough times such as pandemics,” she said. “Most of the people we have helped have said how without us, they don’t know what they would have done and are just pleased that we set the group up.” The Facebook group have been regularly organising food for key-workers, donations for the homeless, and have set-up a helpline for anyone in distress. However, these groups aren’t just formed in Manchester, they’re part of a national effort carried out by millions up and down the country.

As we move into the next phase of the pandemic and await what it holds, we should be appreciating the efforts of our local communities in the North-West more than ever. They are the blood running through the twisting, ageing veins of society. They are the ones keeping us afloat. In the midst of an economic meltdown amplified by a worsening health crisis, there’s no doubt we’ll soon be reaching out to the locally-led groups and charities for support and guidance once again. During the lockdown, we saw our local community at its very best. We saw the sheer necessity of having a society where we care for each other. When the vulnerable couldn’t step out, our local folk stepped in. 

It is crucial to recognise that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of our local communities. In the not so distant future, it’s something we’d do well to value more.