Of course, this happened at the same time as having to regroup and respond to calls from frightened and desperate clients watching their jobs in frontline hospitality, caring and servicing sectors disappear. In some cases, experiences were profoundly traumatic and the need for support extreme. Household earners became ill or died. Isolated older people, families and women heading households for the first time sought to find their feet, whilst scrambling to find enough money for food and trying to unravel paperwork, family finances or the complexities of the benefits system.
Pre-Covid, some BAME community-led groups and small charities had been frowned upon for a certain lack of professionalism with their unstructured relationships and lack of digital savvy, but the crisis has fostered new and truly innovative ways of working. Amongst the first successes saw the ability to use good old-fashioned advice phone calls and word-of-mouth referrals. These were both crucial and effective support responses for members of communities inexperienced with all things digital.
A similar grassroots approach was taken to support schooling. Community BAME projects and small charities across the country were able to provide laptops for some GCSE pupils and children in need. Coupled with the printing and distribution of homework sheets for those with no home computer or printer, these direct and practical solutions helped keep some young people connected with learning.
By using a phone appointments system, some charities were also able to support members of their communities with the basics and the more tricky tech stuff. This involved everything from explaining how to upload photographs of documents; help with filling in forms and official paperwork or even hand-delivering letters for a client to sign and then sticking them in the postbox. Others painstakingly talked clients through how to use WhatsApp and Zoom, before re-launching ESOL classes, parenting sessions for beleaguered mums, and online sessions for fitness, health and mental wellbeing.
Food too played a huge part in local effort, and every single community group transformed itself into a lifeline for desperate families. All provided food either informally or as foodbanks supported by volunteers – one small group delivered up to 1,400 food packets a month.
Tragically, lockdown did not bring an end to displacement and domestic violence. One local group rose to help families with severely disabled children who had been re-housed from a UN Refugee camp in Delhi. This support was essential – the families were living in a household bare of essential goods, with no local knowledge, no English and no idea how to turn on heating systems. In a chance encounter, one of those refugees, a Somali woman, in turn supported another woman who had escaped from domestic violence during lockdown, travelling hundreds of miles to try and start a new life. Both women were put in touch with a social worker and a grassroots community group; both were visited, provided with clothing, furniture, food, an ear to listen as they cried, and help in accessing health, benefits and social networks.
As Covid continues to play havoc in many disenfranchised communities, I have watched on in awe and wonder at the way so many self-led BAME community groups and small multi-cultural charities have risen to the numerous challenges presented by the pandemic, without the benefit of sophisticated digital infrastructure or formulaic governance structures. When people know how their own communities work and pull together, truly remarkable things happen.