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Responding to COVID-19: Narratives in our time

Alongside the release of the report on the second phase of research from the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC), Rob Macmillan of Sheffield Hallam University explores the common themes and narratives that have accompanied us through the pandemic – and why these matter more than ever for communities now.

The pandemic has been accompanied by a series of different images and narratives. Early on, politicians adopted wartime imagery and channelled their inner Churchill to stress how we were involved in a collective effort to defeat a new, unseen, viral enemy. NHS staff and other key workers were on the front line, supported by new Nightingale field hospitals and a newly mobilised army of volunteers and mutual aid community responders. A year later, the main narrative has become one of a race – between vaccinating the population and the spread of new variants of COVID-19.

Both narratives imply hard, enduring struggles in adversity, and are designed to garner support and maintain collective morale through a singular crisis towards the prospect of victory ahead. But there is a third narrative that has held all the way through the pandemic: one focusing on visibility and recognition. Two prime examples of this are around inequalities and the role of communities – both of which have surfaced significantly during the crisis in the otherwise easily distracted worlds of media and politics.

First, the pandemic has generated a much keener sense of social and economic inequalities. Certainly, we are all in this together – but in terms of personal finances, employment, housing, mental health and ultimately in people who have died during the pandemic, the burden of suffering is massively uneven.

Second, the importance of community action, volunteering and the role of voluntary organisations and community groups has received far more attention than before. To a far greater extent all this has been noticed, appreciated and put to use during COVID-19. There is arguably deeper recognition, by no means universal of course, of just how much as a society we have come to rely on voluntary and community action in supporting communities and public services. In common metaphorical terms, it is part of the fabric of society, the resourceful grassroots networks and infrastructure that helps to keep things going, before, during and beyond emergencies.

Our research so far

Local Trust’s research into communities responding to COVID-19 focuses squarely on how various communities react to and cope with the crisis in real time, but this is intrinsically related to concerns around inequalities, supporting marginalised groups and changing needs. Six months into the crisis, we were able to report that the varying community responses to COVID-19 had been (as one local resident put it) “stronger than anyone thought” in adapting quickly and supporting immediate needs, before moving on to begin longer-term plans for work after the crisis. But as another respondent in the study observed, the pandemic has also “gone on longer than anyone thought” – which has presented numerous challenges for communities dealing with its impacts.   

In various ways, communities have moved beyond crisis provision and are beginning to address enduring and emerging needs.

Our latest report takes the story on from autumn 2020 through to spring 2021. Community needs are changing; residents report escalating poverty in their areas, particularly around food and finances, social isolation and loneliness, and inequalities in health. And communities are responding where they can, building partnerships with specialist services such as welfare rights and money advice, addressing digital exclusion, carrying on activities in new ways, and reaching out to work with marginalised groups and individuals. In various ways they have moved beyond crisis provision and are beginning to address enduring and emerging needs.

Different approaches in different areas

The areas in the study have many characteristics in common, but they have not all responded in the same way. We have noted differences between areas with and without a history of community action and those with and without established community-led infrastructure (CLI), by which we mean networks of residents, community leadership, trust, relationships with agencies, and access to resources. Understanding and explaining these differences continues to be a key focus for the research team as the study proceeds.

What is striking, but perhaps unsurprising, is just how exhausted and weary actively involved residents have become in trying to keep their work going for this length of time at such intensity. Sustaining community action has become more challenging as the pandemic continues, especially online. The research explored in the second report shows that people are flagging and showing signs of burnout. But community venues and spaces have been used creatively where possible, and some areas have seen effective relationships emerging between communities and local authorities that have been sustained well so far.

‘Now they see us’

In part, these relationships are emerging because of the newfound visibility, recognition and respect for the role communities play in general and in emergencies. As one of our respondents noted, “now they see us” – where ‘they’ can mean statutory agencies, funders and larger, established voluntary organisations, and ‘us’ tends to refer to on-the-ground voluntary and community action of all kinds. This is a common theme across other COVID-related research and commentary, and surfaces as a long-held frustration about being overlooked, under-supported and taken for granted.

But the narrative of visibility and recognition suggests a different kind of struggle. Rather than a temporary effort to overcome a crisis – to win the war or race – the narrative of visibility and recognition points towards the demand for a deeper reset in the way we think about communities, relationships with statutory authorities and the role and limits of community power. It is perhaps the starting point for a serious debate about the state of our society, public services and communities.

The narrative of visibility and recognition points towards the demand for a deeper reset in the way we think about communities, relationships with statutory authorities and the role and limits of community power.

The COVID-related restrictions to all our lives have been prolonged and have been more extensive than most people will have imagined possible as it emerged – we really didn’t and couldn’t grasp what we were facing at the time. Things change rapidly, but it’s certainly not over yet. The research on community responses to COVID-19 continues for another year, through to spring 2022.

So far, we have produced 12 briefings exploring specific themes in the literature and in the experiences of the study areas, on issues such as resilience and resourcefulness, volunteering, community-led infrastructure, relationships with local authorities and power in communities. In the next phase, as well as tracking how community responses are evolving over time, we will be taking a close look at some key themes – including the importance of community hubs, sustaining community action, and changing community needs. Each will be the subject of a dedicated research briefing.

Look out for these in the coming months – they’ll be available on the Local Trust website, along with all the briefings and reports so far, and more information on the study as a whole.

Rob Macmillan