In the UK, an outbreak of kindness and charity as virus spreads

As vulnerable people self-isolate amid the health crisis, volunteer groups and businesses provide essential support.

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    The UK has placed elderly people, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women at 'high risk' of the virus, recommending they self-isolate for 12 weeks [File: AFP]
    The UK has placed elderly people, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women at 'high risk' of the virus, recommending they self-isolate for 12 weeks [File: AFP]

    London, United Kingdom - Drastic measures have been introduced by authorities worldwide to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

    The United Kingdom has recorded almost 150 virus-related deaths and seen a jump in the number of confirmed cases to more than 3,000.

    Health authorities have said elderly people, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women are at "high risk" from the virus, recommending they self-isolate for 12 weeks. While people aged 70 and above have been told to stay inside and have minimal contact with others for four months.

    Charities have warned about the social effects of these measures and have called on the government to provide extra provisions to at-risk groups. But 10 years of austerity has left councils across the UK with fewer staff and resources to deal with emergencies such as coronavirus.

    In the face of crisis, volunteer groups have sprung up, providing practical services, emotional support and therapy.

    Food chains and local businesses have offered free delivery and meals, while venues deserted by the outbreak have transformed into warehouses where volunteers can collect essential items for people in need.

    In the space of six days, more than 1,800 informal volunteer groups emerged under COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK, an umbrella organisation of independent groups steered by 10 campaigners. 

    Seren John-Wood, who helped to establish the first mutual aid group in south London last week, sent out leaflets explaining how people can set up a local network.

    Soon after, the media reported on the initiative and several groups formed.

    "It's striking how quickly and passionately people engaged with the idea of coming together as communities to help people," said John-Wood, a 23-year-old student. 

    The groups mostly organise on social networks and provide food shopping or dog walking for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, as well as emotional support with phone calls to people who live alone.

    "It's for anyone who needs to self isolate who doesn't have the social structures around them to do that safely," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK. 

    To reach those who do not use social media, volunteers have been pinning up posters and handing out leaflets - after washing their hands - encouraging anyone who needs help to contact them by phone.

    "The more local it is, the more flexible, so that people are really able to respond to the specific needs of their communities, rather than coordinating a national network which may not be the most effective way of helping people quickly," said John-Wood.

    The network has issued guidelines for volunteers that comply with government recommendations and medical advice on how to operate.

    "No one is meant to go into anyone's houses, they should leave shopping on the front door and avoid personal contact," said Smith.

    The network has also carried out online safeguarding training, which was attended by 1,000 volunteers - the maximum number for training at any one time - said Smith. 

    Members have also used groups on WhatsApp and social media to coordinate other campaigning efforts, such as sharing petitions to help people on zero-hour or on-call, contracts where employers are not obliged to provide employees with a set number of hours of work.

    Other community initiatives like the Nextdoor app are developing their tools to better connect locals.

    The social networking app, founded in 2011, is launching a new interactive map - Help Map - that allows people to mark themselves as available to help with anything from food shopping to childcare.

    The app, which is being used to support the elderly and people who have been made redundant, has seen a 15-fold rise in groups being set up over the past week. 

    Local restaurants and cafes around the UK have also joined in the effort by offering free delivery and free meals to those who cannot leave their house.

    The Tony Perkins Butchers Shop in Attleborough, a village in the west of England, is offering free delivery to customers and has linked up other local businesses to help them deliver their products.

    "It makes sense, the more we can get in our van to make one trip, the more economical it is for everyone. We're all in it, together, if we can make life easier whilst we're still fit and able, maybe we can get through this quicker," said Tony Perkins, the owner of the butcher shop.

    Some venues are contributing by offering space for community initiatives.

    Studio 338 in London, one of the UK's largest nightclubs, is turning into a giant warehouse as a base to store food and other essential items which will be delivered by a team of volunteers.

    The club has called on "young clubbers" to give up their time to help those most in need.

    "While this crisis is affecting everyone, what's becoming increasingly clear are the huge social inequalities in our society. Community networks are a rejection of the politics of division that have characterised the UK over the last few years. It's a way of showing solidarity," says John-Wood. 

    Meanwhile, various charities have expressed concern that self-isolation can exacerbate the situation for people who have mental conditions.

    Approximately one in eight adults with a mental health problem is currently receiving treatment in the UK. In 2018-2019, the NHS made almost half a million more referrals to therapy (1.6 million in total).

    In response to these concerns, therapists have volunteered to offer 20-minute online sessions to the elderly and those particularly struggling in self-isolation.

    The Help Hub was originally set up to serve a small area in Oxfordshire but will expand nationally as it launches following an influx of support.

    "Thanks to the kindness of therapists right across the country willing to work for free, the idea snowballed in the space of less than a fortnight to the extent that we can now cover the whole of the UK," said Ruth Chaloner, the founder of the service. 

    Another form of help is the online community, Elefriends, set up by mental health charity Mind.

    "People are becoming more aware of the way others live and are realising there is a way of engaging quickly and practically to help them," said John-Wood, who says she hopes it will foster long-lasting connections and mechanisms for supporting vulnerable people in society.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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