Opinion

Coronavirus and the comeback of community spirit

The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented and terrifying. But I won’t tell you what you can already find out from the barrage of breaking news headlines flooding social media.

Instead, we have to remember that, despite all the panic and fear that this historic global pandemic has brought, despite the uncertainty and the disruption, this crisis has truly illuminated the best of humanity. The positive effects of the pandemic were scarcely imaginable just a week ago. We’re now witnessing a revolution of kindness, as people reach out to each other and make sure that everyone is cared for.

As I queued in a pharmacy yesterday, complete strangers (standing a safe distance apart) laughed together about their shared struggle to find toilet paper and their creative alternatives. As Judi Dench told fans: “just keep laughing – it’s all we can do”.

Laughing is not, however, all we can do. For both across the UK and around the world, communities are embracing the best of humanity and coming together in order to support the elderly and vulnerable, and those who are self-isolating. Countless community groups have been established – predominantly through social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp – to coordinate inspiring local responses to the emergency.

Some of these groups span whole towns, some just one cul-de-sac. There are groups within groups, and groups within those groups – all doing their best to make sure that nobody is forgotten. Volunteers are giving up their own time to collect shopping and supplies, walk dogs, relay information, post mail and provide emotional support in this moment of need.

Many communities have had to confront the fact that solutions don’t always come from the government or local authorities. Number 10 press conferences and the best efforts of those behind desks in Whitehall can’t solve the personal, complex problems posed by the coronavirus to communities with their own unique circumstances. Collective community action has been around for decades, and the idea has certainly enjoyed something of a revival thanks to Lisa Nandy in the Labour leadership race (which has long since faded from the headlines), but it’s gained a powerful new lease of life in this crisis. We’re witnessing that concept of community – a focus for positive change and mutual aid – come to life before our eyes, albeit in awful circumstances.

I spoke to Frederik Filz van Reiterdank, who set up ‘Students Against Corona’ in Oxford earlier this week. By Thursday, the group already had 1000 members and 500 volunteers across the country, and is spearheading the first international student-led effort to help communities struggling in the crisis. It aims to pair students with members of their local community, providing help with shopping, food deliveries and everyday tasks – without volunteers coming into personal contact with vulnerable people.

Frederik recalls how the group’s founders watched as “the whole world seemed to close down”. The team set up the group out of fears for vulnerable people who might have to spend much of the next four months in quarantine, but Frederik was personally inspired to do something after learning that his grandmother in the Netherlands had struggled to get food delivered to her home.

Students Against Corona has prioritised hygiene and safety, recognising that volunteers might otherwise be spreading the virus through leafleting and helping out. “We’re seeing a lot of really great initiatives,” Frederik explains, “but some are spreading the virus more than they’re helping”. By working closely with NHS and medical professionals around the world, the group is promoting a rigorous hygienic approach. Volunteers are shown an information video that urges them to wash their hands before shifts, use sanitiser during volunteering activities and clean all exchanged objects. “We’re really trying to get this right,” Frederik adds.

Students Against Corona is forging partnerships with local community organisations, such as community larders and the Oxford Hub, which is running its own ‘street champions’ initiative. Frederik is also appealing to Oxford colleges to help with providing volunteers, funding, resources and information about people who might need assistance.

And while the movement might have been established by a “centralised body”, the group encourages students to create initiatives within their own communities, offering help with setting up websites, designing leaflets and managing press. “This is not something we totally own,” Frederik stresses. “This unites students across the world in their ownership of initiatives in their home towns”.

The scale of the project could be “huge”. On Thursday morning, the group established its Montreal branch. Social media has made for a “hugely coherent response” and Frederik praises the “unbelievable” support offered by hundreds of volunteers in the UK alone. “In fact, the biggest problem now is that we have more volunteers than people who are asking for help, which is the next thing to work on.”

The COVID-19 crisis has brought together young and old, transcending class divides and uniting communities through one common aim: to help people who need it.

While some efforts are reaching international heights, others are distinctly local. In my own town, where I’m dealing with the admin for a village support group, we’re in the process of distributing leaflets, identifying needs and constructing a network of ‘zone leaders’ to ensure every street is cared for. A community art project and parents’ group were launched on Friday. The group is run entirely through Facebook at the moment, but a website is being developed too.

Some local streets are ‘doing their own thing’, remaining in close contact with the project’s coordinators but taking charge of how they divide up jobs. The leadership’s aim is not to micro-manage street responses to the crisis, but to make sure that every area is covered and volunteers are ‘matched’ with people who’ve asked for help. Requests for help are trickling in, but we’re preparing for demand to soar.

The village group, like others, is there for everyone. Initial discussions concerned elderly residents, but we’re also talking about children, vulnerable families and food banks, as well as the implications of the pandemic for mental health and learning. Thankfully, many people do have friends and family that they can rely on but people have expressed their gratitude for a new network that will remain in place as the crisis intensifies. Self-isolation will topple, for weeks at a time, those frameworks of support that we could all once depend on.

In times like these, just putting a smile on people’s faces is a positive achievement and these community initiatives are doing just that. In fact, the very idea of ‘community’ is being redefined. Communities that we had no idea existed before the virus hit have stepped out of the shadows and made known their transformative healing potential. Areas that have long lacked investment and opportunity are coming alive through the power and dynamism of community spirit. Friendships have been forged and some of the most marginalised people in our society have learned that support for them is closer to home than they ever imagined.

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for us all to reach out to our vulnerable friends and neighbours, but we’re doing it now – and it really matters. With schools sending children home on Friday, supermarkets shelves bare, and people increasingly struggling to look after their loved ones, reaching out and lending a hand is more important than ever before.

And I hope, when this pandemic is long gone, that these positive community networks will stay in place, offering help and hope to people who need it.

For now, we just have to keep looking out for each other. It will make all the difference in the world.

Oliver Shaw

Oliver (he/him) is the Senior Current Affairs Editor at The Oxford Blue for the summer vacation and Michaelmas 2020. Oliver lives in Warwickshire and is entering his final year studying History at Merton College.