Transforming our communities: transforming what and why?

Image by Matthew Schwartz@cadop

Since Covid-19 there have been moments in the lacuna of restrictions where hope has sprung through the gaps and proclaimed…Things will never be the same again! How true. Since March 2020 tens of thousands of people have died, tens of thousands have lost their jobs and millions have had their lives interrupted. The only certainty is that we are all living in an accelerated world where everything is standing still. Most people are focussing on the small details whilst a huge narrative plays out. All this we know and during these contradictory times, voices can be heard above the whispers about opportunities for: climate change, for different ways of working, for neighbourliness and kindness. Or that’s how it seemed at the beginning.

However, it seems that, seven months down the road, we are becoming increasingly oppositional in our behaviour, eschewing masks and social distancing, bending the rules for get-togethers; but who are we opposing and who is at risk? The infection rate is going up, the satires on the U-turn motorway that is government policy continue, and the economy is tanking.

Sadly, the twists and turns of policy have meant that the silence of the roads is now a roar, as the only safe way to travel is in a car. The marvellous bird song is presumably still there, we just can’t hear it. Those with no small children and a spare room delight in home working, and those of us outside the cities enjoy the outdoors as we take our daily exercise. Like all complex situations there were, and still are appalling consequences and privations as well as opportunities and pleasures, all with virus droplets as a mediating force.

The nation is getting restless while people try to live as normally as possible, whether that means congregating in each other’s houses, caring for each other’s children, going to the pub, cramming onto public transport or all going to Bournemouth at the same time.

As for wearing masks, God help us. We ignore those countries such as Spain and France, both of whom are ahead of the curve, where wearing masks outside, not just in shops and on public transport, is mandatory. It should be noted that, for decades, many South Asians have customarily worn masks at the first hint of a cold, let alone a pandemic. What is it about the face mask that provokes such emotion?

As if a pandemic wasn’t sufficient to test the mettle of any country, what about Brexit? There will probably be: no deal, no progress, no regard for the law. No matter which way you voted, truth and honour were truly taken hostage by the Brexit,“£350 million pounds for the NHS”, claim on the side of a bus. They were further sacrificed by Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle and put to death by the prospect of the UK breaking international law. If we are to follow our leaders our national excuse for breaking the lockdown will be that, to quote Brandon Lewis, we are doing it, “in a specific and limited way”. 

It seems that there has been a move over a relatively short time from unity against an invisible threat, to a disharmonious response to an unintelligible authority. If we only we had grown-ups leading us in a grown-up way, grown–ups like Jacinda Ardhern in New Zealand, where the nation pulled together because they understood what was being asked of them and why.

If we have lost our initial sense of solidarity against the virus, where has it gone? Are we seeing a deep-seated antipathy to authority and a national lack of trust? Many commentators have described our recent behaviours and choices as acts of self-harm. Flouting the restrictions may seem to be this. As ever the evidence contradicts this, and here we come full circle. The groups and neighbours who came together at the beginning of the pandemic are still doing so.

This is where our hope lies, in our communities. Seven months ago there were many examples of unity and action. A time when we clapped for carers, walked round our gardens to raise money, helped people who were shielding, organised, cooked, shopped, and supported our front-line workers. These many hundreds of examples of community action demonstrate that there is an alternative. What’s more, groups and individuals are still supporting each other and those in need.

But does it go far enough? The stakes are certainly high. Unemployment will, it is estimated, reach over 4 million. The Budget has just been scrapped because long term planning is untenable. Furlough is coming to an end. Businesses, big and small are going bust.

So what can we do? We need to organise and make our communities resilient. The foundation for community transformation is there. There is evidence everywhere of: community groups, centres, co-ops, after school clubs, the WI, church groups, community energy companies, environmental groups, community interest companies, credit banks, housing co-ops… communities making their own choices about the way they want to live and how they want to operate. Communities have always shaped their streets, villages, towns, and cities to suit their needs. With austerity and a huge recession in prospect the need to organise was never more pressing. We just need to come together to do it, at home, in the workplace, where we live, to protect our most vulnerable and to protect ourselves from a system that is about to fail us on a massive scale. The pandemic may be global but our futures are local.

Penny Grennan is part of Tynedale Transformed (TT), a group concerned with Community Organising. “It’s about imagining radical change and planning how to make it happen. And it’s about doing it together. TT involves local, regional, national and international voices, tackling topics that affect the people of Tynedale. It draws on existing networks and connections, locally, regionally and nationally as well as providing a platform for new ideas, new groups and individuals”. TT20 Festival runs from 2nd – 4th Oct.

Please follow us on social media, subscribe to our newsletter, and/or support us with a regular donation