I got a better sense of how well our government handled the recent lockdown after speaking with Nicola Spurr, a volunteer in Bayswater Covid-19 Mutual Aid. Nicola is part of a community-based charity formed in March as a response to the national lockdown.
We spoke community spirit, governmental responsibility and the importance of charity.
I see that Bayswater Covid-19 Mutual Aid is very community-based? How do you feel the community has come together for those in need?
We have only really existed as an organisation since we formed in March of this year. We were created as a response to the pandemic and the lockdown. In our very nature, we are community-based in that we are people who live in the area in which they are helping and organise the group as a community. At our core we are helping people who are struggling in the lockdown. But this is not only about us and this community. Mutual aids mushroomed across the UK, and most of them operating in a very local and community-based area. Therefore, there has been a kind of momentum of people helping each other throughout the country
Especially in London, people couldn’t shop, couldn’t be helped with their carers etc. Therefore, it was really necessary that the vulnerable received support, otherwise their only options were to risk their lives leaving their home or literally not eat or be looked after at home. There is really an ethos of radical solidarity and an idea that we need to build community strength and resilience. We believe that if you build a community structure, communities are [then] better placed at looking after themselves and dealing with threats such as Covid-19.
How do you think that we can build this community spirit in practical terms?
To be clear, I think that we already have a sense of community throughout the country. We have social clubs, sports clubs, religious groups etc. all of which operate on a local scale. These small neighbourhood groups already foster a sense of community.
However, we need to do more to look out for neighbours who are vulnerable. We really have a problem with social isolation where people don’t leave their homes and also have problems with physical and mental health. Due to the fact they don’t leave their homes, neighbours cannot know and cannot help people to get the help they need. We need to build a culture of not only gathering with like-minded people but to also look outside of our own social bubble and interact with people that may need help.
Mutual aids have helped encourage this sense of community, but it is a question of how to continue it. I think that already many people who are usually too busy are starting to get to better know their neighbours due to working at home, which is already an improvement. We also need local councillors to help develop a better sense of community. They have the resources which are needed to encourage this, such as community buildings, staff and funds — which make it easier for people to know and interact with each other. Councils also have a duty of care to their wards and ensuring that the people who live in their area well looked after and included in society.
On the topic of the responsibility of the council; how has the council helped you and your organisation?
They were helpful to an extent. To start off with I ensured that I knew the councillors in the three wards in which we were operating. This was important to establish the credibility of our group as we were working with the government. Additionally, councillors have the authority to ask questions in the council such as, ‘Why have the homeless not been housed yet’ or ‘Why are some council facilities not available for use’ — which have been issues that we needed to deal with.
Having access to the council and the power that they have to change things in the community was really important for us. I call this an ‘enabling environment’ where we are able to change local issues quicker and more efficiently. Finally, in cases where specific people had certain unusual problems, councillors who worked in that area were able to better deal with those issues. But this is really what government ought to do: facilitate ideas, provide resources and encourage civil society to be able to deal with these issues.
Do you think that local community-led initiatives are more effective than larger more centralised groups at dealing with problems facing local areas?
To answer this question, I am going to look at our specific community. When the Town Hall shut in the lockdown, we soon found out that a large proportion of people working for Westminster Council did not live there as it is too expensive. Therefore, in the lockdown, they were unable to get onto the streets and address the local problems that people were facing. They only managed to get Westminster Connect, the support network for the borough, up and running several weeks into the lockdown.
Only mutual aids mobilised and were operating during these few weeks where there was no help available except for these organisations. As they are hyper-local, they are more flexible and responsive to the issues — characteristics which were extremely useful in the lockdown due to the ever-changing nature of the problems that we were facing.
Having said that, in an ideal world, tackling these problems should be the role of government. We pay taxes for a social system to support people in times of need such as this lockdown. It is far from ideal that you have untrained and unpaid volunteers dealing with often very complex issues.
In the lockdown the government relied on us to provide lots of support and continues to do so. The broad civilian response showed how government was unable to support those in need.