In 2020 my research on the pandemic has been grim. With community teams from Fife Council in Scotland, I have managed over 80 narrative interviews with people who are mainly vulnerable and disadvantaged. We found our sample through community workers at food banks and community pantries. We simply asked them to tell us their story from the first time they heard about COVID-19, through lockdown, towards the emerging end of the second wave.
The findings suggest that a priority for 2021 in the community will be mental health and wellbeing. It will not be a role for the NHS alone. We found people to be isolated and lonely, missing friendship and community support.
“It’s like being in the war again.”
“I dinnae want to be alone.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, Marmot argues in his 2020 report, exposes and amplifies inequalities in society and health inequalities tell us about inequalities in society. This has become clearer to us as the pandemic has developed and we have been able to notice overlapping patterns between those most likely to contract the virus and groups such as those in dense living conditions, elderly and/or vulnerable people and those in the BAME demographic.
We found that the people we interviewed had complex lives, already living with poverty before the virus outbreak. The virus was exacerbating their situation to intolerable levels.
Amelia (not her real name) is a single parent with a teenage son, John, who is on the Asperger’s spectrum. John is terrified of the virus and cannot bear noise. Under lockdown, the neighbours were having loud parties and were not adhering to social distancing guidelines. Amelia has diabetes and was afraid to contact the neighbours or go to the shops. She was anxious about running out of food or not being able to collect her medication, as the buses were not in service and she does not have a car. She is worried about lockdown in winter and the increased fuel bills which she cannot afford. With the noise upsetting him, John hits out at her and she does not know what to do if the situation continues.
Amelia was so disempowered by many knockdowns that she could not see her way out of her situation and the only thing that kept her going was her son.
For young people and elderly folk too, the challenges of the pandemic are tough. At an individual level, children and young people have suddenly lost many of the activities that provide structure, meaning and a daily rhythm, such as school, extracurricular activities, social interactions and physical activity. Over a sustained period, these losses may worsen any existing depressive symptoms and may further entrench the social withdrawal or hopelessness that many were already experiencing prior to COVID-19.
Our findings found that older adults are particularly affected by issues including isolation, loneliness, end-of-life care and bereavement, which may be exacerbated by the so-called digital divide. Practical issues such as how to get their shopping and medication also featured in the interviews. People with existing mental health issues, including those with severe mental illnesses, might be particularly affected by relapse, disruptions to services, isolation and the possible exacerbation of symptoms in response to pandemic-related information and behaviours.
The research found that community resilience was generally at a low ebb and people needed action at three levels to assist with mental health and wellbeing:
- Support for the individual to cope;
- Support for the community to rally round its members;
- Support with systems and structures that mitigate hardship.
Each of these levels lies within the domain of the community worker. Building trust, facilitating befriending or peer support, and social prescribing are important to people like Amelia to help her find her way out of her situation.
The support of the community in rallying round its vulnerable members has been phenomenal. Third sector organisations and volunteers have fed people, provided social contact, delivered cookers to people who need them, collected medication and done so much else. They need time to reflect and plan for the future and the community worker can assist with this, helping people to recognise the value of what they have done and to plan for an uncertain future.
The third level is arguably the most important. Poverty is embedded in society and we can continue to put sticking plaster over its effects. A better approach, in my opinion, is to engage local people as active citizens; to work with them on political literacy so they can influence decisions and make the changes they want to see. This does not require a political stance by community workers, many of whom work for local or national governments. It is simply a matter of helping people to find a voice on local issues.
The future of COVID-19 and a vaccine is uncertain but will no doubt incorporate an increase in people living in poverty through job losses and a downturn in the economy. Our jobs as community workers are all the more important so that we can contribute to the resilience of people and communities. Some argue that resilience is being used to ‘knock’ people who cannot withstand adversity; to blame them for lack of resilience. But resilience is about support from others and needs to be seen in this positive light. To make resilience real, we need to be working at all the three levels I have mentioned above. The last word goes to Amelia.
“I love him [her son, John], that’s all ye can do. I just love him. Aye, ye just do yer best, don’t ye?”
Karen McArdle has worked in the community development field for over 30 years and taught evaluation to professionals across multiple community contexts.
The Impact of Community Work: How to Gather Evidence by Karen McArdle, Sue Briggs, Kirsty Forrester, Ed Garrett and Catherine McKay is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £22.39.
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