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Community spirit Coronavirus

7 lessons from a pandemic

Who knew, in 2019, that the power of collective action would be making headlines around the world?

The pandemic revealed our heavy reliance on individuals and communities in the places where we live. Countless stories of communities stepping up to support their neighbours, through mutual aid groups and more.

Throughout the pandemic, community leaders in 150 Big Local areas did everything they could to keep meeting the needs of local people. In parallel, Local Trust gathered information, insight, stories and research to shed light on their extraordinary effort.

Two years on – what we learned

Now, to mark the two-year anniversary of the lockdown, we have picked out some of the stand-out learnings from these challenging times. We’ve also revisited the Long Crisis scenarios to explore how the four possible futures facing us 2 years ago have panned out.

  1. Things can change very quickly
    We are living in a time of economic and political turbulence, social change, environmental stress, institutional upheaval and even, in 2022, war on Europe’s doorstep. The pace of change is unremitting, and communities have a key role to play. They have already responded to longer-term shifts and urgent challenges with a huge range of innovations, but there have also been new or intensified stresses on places and the people that inhabit them.The pandemic gave rise to new thinking about the role of resilient communities and their importance in everyone’s lives. We realised sustainable resilience is about more than being shockproof: we need to design systems that help us create a better future. Communities themselves also need to nurture the capabilities they will need to navigate a range of different futures, knowing as we do that the future is deeply uncertain, but some things can be anticipated and even prepared for.
  2. Communities are well placed to step into the crisis
    Research found that communities have been hugely resourceful – responding quickly and appropriately to community needs. They have also developed creative ways of bringing financial and human resources together. Grassroots mutual aid, and other assistance, groups provided food handouts and deliveries and other necessities such as access to computers and phones to enable children to learn from home.
  3. ‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods are more vulnerable than others
    Community groups with strong ties to local charities, businesses and their local authority were able to step in to support residents significantly faster than communities that had no history of mutual aid. Conversely, areas that lacked three key ingredients for community – places to meet, a culture of community action and organisation and, digital and physical connectedness – found it harder to get things going.This illustrates the need to invest proactively in the social infrastructure of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods to increase their responsiveness to future shocks and pressures
  4. Togetherness matters
    In response to lockdown, community groups up and down the country came up with innovative projects to get people back together. They used technology during lockdown to support peoples’ physical and mental health. Groups organised sessions on everything from weekly poetry open mic nights to online juggling classes. And when lockdowns were lifted, local groups used community spaces to bring people back together, from a men’s shed in Mablethorpe to community pompom making in East Cosely.
  5. Places to meet need more investment
    Community hubs and spaces were integral to swift and appropriate responses to the pandemic. Especially when access to these spaces was controlled by local residents, they allowed communities to react quickly and re-direct resources to where they were most needed. Often these hubs were converted, rapidly, to storage and distribution points for not only food, but also other essentials such as children’s clothing, activity packs, toiletries and, in some cases, household and electrical items. While loved, many are financially insecure and a sustainable future for community hubs that recognises their vital role is uncertain.
  6. Creativity has the power to transform
    Community projects that inspired creativity were found to be deceptively powerful. For instance, when lockdown forced the community hub in Portland Street, Stoke-on-Trent to close, residents began delivering creative packs, containing things such as seeds to plant to young people on the street. This offered important moments to listen and connect with parents in the neighbourhood. Fifteen communities taking part in Local Trust’s Creative Civic Change (CCC) programme found that their communities used creative projects to unite and support each other through tough times.Creativity also enabled Big Local communities involved in The Long Lost Year to find consolation, meaning and perspective as they reflected on loss.
  7. Strong, well-supported community leaders are important.
    A review of Local Trust’s Community Leadership Academy (in partnership with Koreo, the Young Foundation and Northern Soul), showed the importance of ensuring community leaders are supported and celebrated. This is true in normal times and was especially true during the COVID-19 crisis. Distributed leadership was extremely effective.Community leaders played a pivotal role in setting up and running mutual aid groups and effecting positive change in their local areas.

Flourishing communities can shape a resilient future, with the right funding

In conclusion, what is clear is that community responses to COVID were as wide ranging as they were essential. The information gathered here – and there are many more examples – show how important communities are in shaping a better, more resilient and sustainable future.

Funding and support are essential to ensure the networks of local support that were forged in the crisis continue to adapt and flourish. The forthcoming consultation on a possible Community Wealth Fund offers a key opportunity.