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Community spirit Coronavirus

One crisis, many responses

In this blog, Rob Macmillan of Sheffield Hallam University lays out the findings from the first phase of a study by the Third Sector Research Centre into community-based responses to COVID-19 over the last six months, and looks ahead to what comes next.

The COVID-19 crisis continues, with uneven impacts across health, the economy, well-being, schools, families and communities. As the scale of the disruption becomes more apparent day by day, the latest restrictions designed to halt a ‘second wave’ of the virus suggest no let-up in the foreseeable future.

In this context, how have communities been reacting to and coping with the crisis, and what role might they play in whatever comes next? These questions have attracted a lot of interest, observation and commentary, but as yet little in-depth and grounded research. Our study for Local Trust over the last six months has been charting the ways community-based action in 26 different areas has contributed to the pandemic response.

In Stronger than anyone thought: Communities responding to COVID-19, our report from the first phase of the research, we highlight the importance of community-led infrastructure, consisting of connected networks of residents, community leadership, trust, relationships with agencies, and access to money. It is this array of community-level resources that appears to underpin an effective response.

Three main findings have emerged from our learning conversations since April 2020 with over 300 community members, activists and workers across the 26 study areas.

First, there has been one crisis, but many responses. This is evident in the wide range of activities supporting residents during the lockdown, but also in the different ways in which community groups have worked beyond boundaries with other agencies.

Second, we find that most communities have moved on from an initial crisis response, as lockdown restrictions began to ease. But there is a mixed picture across our study areas. While some groups are planning ahead systematically for emerging and future community needs, others struggle to plot a way forward.

There has been a remarkable resurgence of community spirit during COVID-19. Yet our research emphasises an uneven landscape of community response.

Third, the explanation for these varied responses appears to be the strength of community-led infrastructure. Where it is limited, the crisis response has primarily been focused on coordinating emergency food preparation and distribution, often propelled by the actions of individuals. Where community-led infrastructure is richer and more established, the response has been more proactive and wider-ranging with more creative responses to addressing need.

One of our research participants noted that the crisis had highlighted that their community is “stronger than anyone thought it was”. There has rightly been wider recognition and celebration of the remarkable resurgence of community spirit during COVID-19. Yet our research emphasises an uneven landscape of community response. Some communities have been readier to respond, to re-prioritise their activities and able to make more effective use of their resources than others.

Continuing uncertainty about a ‘second wave’ means that it is still perhaps too early to talk with confidence about ‘recovery’. The second phase of research through the autumn and winter will focus on the ways in which different areas move on from the immediate crisis, and where they go next.