Communities and citizens during Covid-19

Communities and citizens during Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has touched everyone’s lives. We all have stories to tell and sadness to share. But many of us have also made unexpected discoveries in our localities, taken up fresh pursuits, developed new friends or helped neighbours.

Marginalised communities became highly visible during the pandemic." - Mike Aiken, Fellow

Many of these activities have involved acts of one-to-one kindness, such as doing the shopping or collecting a medical prescription for friends or neighbours. These can be understood as local ‘civic action’ to support people in our communities. In some cases, connections between local people were facilitated by the emergence of mutual aid networks. These paired up people who could provide help with those who needed support.

Voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations rapidly adapted their services to meet the new needs of disadvantaged people during the pandemic. Meanwhile, researchers working in this sector, including myself, were keen to capture and share VCSE’s rapid learning while not drawing them away from vital frontline actions. My own work, for example, revealed how a community-owned pub linked up its operations with food banks to pack and deliver wholesome meals to housebound, disabled or elderly people. A charity whose volunteers had assisted migrants with language needs on a face-to-face basis – so they could access health or welfare services – changed rapidly to create online multi-lingual services. A community centre opened its garden for socially-distanced outdoor meetings or informal music events.

These examples provide snapshots of the timely action undertaken by VCSE organisations in two arenas. They point, first, to deeper questions about the extent of poverty and disadvantage within the UK. Second, they underline the voluntary sector’s important role in these areas: adapting rapidly during Covid, sharing their learning and providing spaces where citizens’ voices might help shape policy and practice. Looking ahead, if we are to ‘build back better’, how might VCSE organisations help in these two arenas?

First, it is important to dig deeper into understanding the poverty and disadvantage revealed by the pandemic. For many communities, the problem was not simply insecure work, poor housing or low educational attainment. Rather, it was an entangled knot of multiple disadvantages across generations. Some researchers use the word ‘precarity’ to describe this situation.

Marginalised communities – including those working in the ‘gig’ economy of temporary work, low-paid workers and certain ethnic groups – became highly visible during the pandemic. For the social philosopher, Judith Butler, “precarity is not just an episodic condition” but carries a “pervasive sense of ‘insecurity’ ” in both economic and psychological dimensions. For these communities, the post-pandemic landscape will not look pretty.

Secondly, how can the voluntary sector play a role in rebuilding our communities? Conversations with experienced VCSE practitioners suggest that there is scope for a new settlement, perhaps resembling Willian Beveridge’s 1948 report which set out the importance of voluntary action alongside public sector services. In the aftermath of war, he called for “fresh political inventions” involving the state in doing more, but said that “room, opportunity, and encouragement must be kept for voluntary action in seeking new ways of fruitful co-operation between public authorities and voluntary agencies.”

During the pandemic, many practitioners found that rigid contracting processes ­– involving competitive and restrictive clauses – gave way to flexible work focused on beneficiaries’ needs and inter-agency co-operation and trust. This was especially notable for those working with the street homeless. Hence, might VCSE organisations gain spaces to develop agile, creative and localised responses to poverty and precarity? Could learning from citizens’ forums provide a lasting legacy from Covid-19?

This offers an opportunity to think and do differently. Can we take it?


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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