What I’ve learned from Covid (so far)

I first thought about writing this post back in June 2020, thinking that the worst of the pandemic was over. Clearly I was being optimistic, and now much of what follows sits in a different and perhaps darker context. I’m not sure who I’m writing this for (there’s clearly more than enough writing about the crisis already) but I’m hoping the process will be cathartic and helps me to draw lessons from a year when my perspective has often felt foggy at best.

In summer 2019 my partner and I moved to rural mid-Wales and became parents to our wonderful son. Notwithstanding the usual baptism of fire experienced by new parents, we quickly started building a life for ourselves. When the Covid crisis kicked off, the community here came together to respond and I volunteered to help.

In the initial explosion of news and social media, I was one of many people whose first instinct was to try and help in any way that I could. Fuelled by the adrenaline of such an unprecedented situation (including in terms of how often the word “unprecedented” was used), I found myself volunteering with the local “mutual aid” response.

Within a few weeks there were multiple WhatsApp groups (one with over a hundred people), and even an acronym for the loosely affiliated individuals who had come together.

Like many groups around the country, we decided to set up a website (using WordPress), email address (via Google) and phone number (using Aircall, which for a fairly hefty fee allowed us to register a local number that any of us could use over the internet from our own devices). Self-isolating people who needed support with shopping or collecting prescriptions could therefore request help. We even set up a support request management system using Helpscout (who kindly waived all fees) to log emails and phone calls.

As the full lockdown came into force, and with stories of people going as far as to quarantine their shopping before bringing into their home (let alone actually venturing to a shop), we feared that hundreds of people would be left without food. We are rural enough that there are gaps in supermarket home delivery coverage, and of course plenty of elderly people don’t have the internet anyway.

So our large group of volunteers organised itself into “hyperlocal groups”, and a couple of local developers with GIS skills quickly created a custom Googlemap to show the boundaries between each area. We then (with sanitised hands) attempted to post a flyer through each door to let isolating people know that support was available.

It quickly became apparent that there was a degree of conflict between the self-organising nature of the volunteer group, and the desire of some of the core “coordination team” to have robust systems to ensure that everyone vulnerable had been reached.

It seems silly in hindsight, but I spent many an hour fretting that some local groups hadn’t updated a Google spreadsheet to confirm that all the houses in their area had been reached. I felt self-conscious about contacting people I didn’t know to check in about something that in all likelihood wasn’t a big deal, but that in the minds of some of us had taken on a certain symbolic significance.

The amount of electronic communication (mainly on WhatsApp) quickly became unmanageable for all but the most dedicated of volunteers, and lots of people stopped engaging. Despite this (and probably out of politeness), few actually left groups or made it clear that they didn’t want to be contacted, making it all the more awkward when we tried to get people to engage with the system we had created.

On the other hand, it was great to quickly form relationships with interesting and thoughtful people, and to receive so many different perspectives on how to grapple with the challenges we all suddenly faced.

One observer pointed out that even with the best-designed system in the world, the most vulnerable people would be often be the least likely to engage with it. Sure, we could help those who felt comfortable picking up the phone to a stranger, but those with complex needs such as alcoholism or depression would be unlikely to utilise any service. In those cases, existing local networks and social services would be much better placed to help.

Indeed there was already a local volunteer charity in the town, and we faced a challenge in wanting to support them as much as possible whilst acknowledging that they lacked the modern infrastructure that we had put in place quickly (e.g. their only phone line was in their office so required someone present and covid-safe there all the time if calls were to be answered).

After weeks of effort and frenzied organising, and after the initial adrenaline/novelty of lockdown wore off, it became clear that there wasn’t much demand for the service we had set up. To me, this showed that existing local networks were mostly working (most people had a friend or neighbour to call on). Although I felt a bit sheepish that I’d been part of what may have been an unnecessary initial panic, I definitely didn’t regret anything as it was much better to have helped create a largely unneeded service than the alternative.

As the group gradually disbanded, difficult decisions needed to be taken. Would we keep the phone line active and monitored even if we only received two calls a day? What if one of those calls was from someone who really needed help? Could we somehow pass on our infrastructure and volunteer network to one of the pre-existing volunteer organisations even though they weren’t asking us to do that? And the most tricky question: who was responsible for making these decisions?

Eventually as the first wave subsided, the core group of organisers got smaller as people went back to work (where possible) and generally acknowledged that their time wasn’t needed anymore. Our family had to move back to London temporarily in August due to building work at our rented property and so my personal involvement lessened further at that point.

We moved back to mid-Wales in late November, just as the second wave was getting into full swing. There were some attempts made to circulate flyers again but (much like clapping for the NHS), enthusiasm had waned. I now find myself writing this having barely contemplated volunteering more time in the second wave, resigned to the fact that the pandemic had taken its course and that aside from following lockdown rules I wasn’t really able to make a difference.

It’s worth noting that aside from the support service I helped create, other initiatives came out of our group of volunteers. A project to produce PPE locally was a great success when national supplies were worryingly short, local food growing networks were galvanised when we feared shops may run short, and a solidarity fund to help people economically affected by the pandemic appears to have made a tangible difference to many people’s lives.

I now find myself reflecting somewhat wryly on the change covid could bring to the world. I initially held hope that this great reset would provide an opportunity to reshape society in a more compassionate and sustainable mould.

Perhaps more fundamentally, I was given a glimpse into how much support there is for strangers in need. But that ultimately this has to be led by the public sector in some form, as the obviously responsible entity. Volunteer networks (however enthusiastic) are no replacement for a properly-funded welfare state.

In my more enthusiastic moments reflecting on the remote support-management system we set up, I considered that it wouldn’t be difficult to design and implement a “gig economy”-style system for social care, where local needs were met by those with free time and tasks could be picked up from a queue managed by a distributed team. But when the problems facing the vulnerable in our society are so basic (the huge gap in mental health service provision being an obvious example), it feels somewhat indulgent to entertain such ideas, not least because of the need for proper training of workers in such a system.

I frequently remind myself that it was only a few months before the pandemic started that I was campaigning against Boris Johnson only to see him romp to a landslide. We’ve now seen a huge amount of public spending to prop up the economy, and even though huge amounts are simply being siphoned to the private sector, there has still been a profound shift to the economic picture.

Despite this, there is a total lack of imagination (or indeed will) to make any fundamental changes to how the economy is structured, with spending primarily focused on restoring the pre-pandemic status quo. It seems depressingly clear that the pandemic winners are the likes of Jeff Bezos and those in the professional classes sufficiently well-networked to tap into Tory public money.

Maybe it’s just that we’re still facing the same problems we were before it all started. It’s hard to tell if society’s capacity to respond to problems has been fragmented or not because those of us who consider ourselves “progressive” were already divided and licking wounds after Johnson and Brexit’s ultimate victory. At least Trump and his anti-science agenda has gone and if nothing else we can thank Covid for that.

The reality is that hundreds of thousands in the UK are dead, and despite many of us putting huge energy into trying to avert disaster at a local level, it seems impossible to know whether it made any difference at all versus the bigger forces at play (let’s be honest, I don’t know many people forced to work in meat factories, cramped accommodation, or other places where covid runs rampant).

Nevertheless I feel grateful for living in a community that was able to come together quickly and effectively. And I feel heartened that this story is far from unique and appears to have been repeated around the country. I shall go forward with hope in my heart, despite the dark months we’ve seen this winter. I resolve to put what energy I can muster into helping those less fortunate than me recover, especially given how severe the collective mental health fallout is likely to be.

4 thoughts on “What I’ve learned from Covid (so far)

  1. This really is a very thoughtful piece of writing, full of insightful reflection on the caring geographies of the COVID era. It is couched of course in terms of the tech dimension, as that is the author’s main area of expertise. Yes, of course it is possible to use GIS and other tech tools to track community support and promote engagement in rural areas. But perhaps there were / are other issues at play in the events and experiences described – which took place in an area of mid-Wales where I also lived for some years. It would be interesting to know if the lead actors in this COVID support network during the first lockdown in Wales (which started this time last year) were perhaps mainly outsiders. The nature of community leadership, and the legitimacy of support initiatives, is deeply influenced – especially in the area about which Jamie writes – by culture, language, occupational background, by the degree of connection to the land, and by social attitudes which are often deeply rooted in non-Conformist thought. It may be that we can learn some good lessons about tech from Jamie’s experience. But we might learn more about how challenging it can be for outsiders to mediate community activism. A fo ben, bid bont.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! You’re right that a lot of people involved in the support network were “outsiders” but as many of the families have now lived in the area for 30 years or more it’s a blurred line. We also had a few native Welsh speakers involved and we endeavoured to make Welsh available where possible (not so easy when info is changing all the time and English was the language common to everyone involved). A lot of the farming community are obviously used to remote/isolated living and so perhaps didn’t feel the need to get involved, but there was certainly no animosity and in general everyone seemed very pleased/reassured that the service was set up (even if it wasn’t used much in the end).

  2. Just got round to reading this and really enjoyed the reflections. I had a somewhat similar experience with mutual agreed groups in London, and I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

    I agree that formal support – social services, health services and I’d suggest also professionally staffed charities – are really better suited to working with those people with long-standing or complex problems. I.e. the group of people who most need help, and who as a society we should be making sure never slip through the net. But there are another big group of people who might not qualify for this kind of support, but are also not having an easy time. The people in between ‘really need help’ and ‘doing great thanks’. Perhaps that’s where volunteer groups should focus?

    1. Thanks Daniel, and good to hear from you! The only thing about volunteers focusing on the “in between” bit is that if we’re not careful then “in between” can also include basic things like provision of food via food banks etc. I guess as well there is an overlap between “volunteering” and “being an active member of the community” (including looking out for people who may need help but mainly as a friend rather in any formal support capacity).

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