When this is all over we will have learned the real meaning of community

By Pat Tulloch

It is the week before lockdown, I self-isolate as I have an underlying health condition that makes me vulnerable to Covid-19. At the Fitzrovia Centre we are in the business of creating social cohesion through bringing people together, it becomes clear we will be unable to maintain safety and forced to close. We have been preparing since mid-February in the hope it would not be necessary, and put plans in place to work remotely, the pandemic has turned everything on its head. All roads lead to a brick wall — we have been working around the clock.

Members of The Fitzrovia Centre team have experienced loss as a result of Covid-19.

The morning of lockdown, I am reassured to hear the sound of the dustmen; I am so grateful that along with everything else we will not have to contend with the pile up of uncollected rubbish. They are surprised when I thank them.

There have been two deaths reported within the team, a confirmed case of Covid-19 amongst volunteers and two further cases involving family members. I am in a state of shock. I don’t want to let myself feel, I need to stay strong as so many people rely on me, there will be time later when this is over to process the horror of the current situation.

I settle into a reluctant routine, during my daily walks, through the deserted back streets I am able to experience an uplift in spirit and focus on what the sun in my face, and air in my lungs brings, I greet everyone I meet and am met with a positive response, I am reminded of my childhood, when people were more polite and friendly, social distance has made us notice each other again. There is a sense of security in the quiet calm.

I am notified of a further death affecting the team and one in recovery. I go further afield with my daily walks in an attempt to switch off, I discover hidden green spaces’, it is frustrating to see people flout rules put in place as a means of protection. People with the virus can deteriorate at an astonishing rate, a lifelong close family friend displaying symptoms of a cold which started with a cough and high temperature was dead within three days, the paramedics did everything they could to save her life, she did not make it to the hospital. The virus cannot be treated. She had an underlying health issue, her body give out. She leaves a twenty one year old daughter.

It has not been easy for me to settle into this new reality, it feels as though I am under house arrest, at first there was only a focus on the restriction. I am aware that the rules that are designed to protect me and save my life also interfere with my civil liberty in a way unimaginable a few months ago. It does not sit well; I am not use to this level of government control. There are competing voices in my head.

As a long term strategy and to ensure future sustainability we have no choice but to furlough the team, this places a further limit on what we can do, however, we have put systems in place to enable us to continue providing some support to our service users.

I am inundated with information, I stop monitoring news reports for the latest coronavirus information. The pandemic has brought society together, but at a cost. It has also exposed the inequality that characterise our communities, with enforced economic inactivity as a result of lockdown this gap is set to widen. I am informed of another death, this time a grandmother.

Over the Easter weekend, my older sister has what appears to be a minor stroke, she is attended to immediately and despite reluctance on her part is taken to St Thomas’s for a battery of tests which she gets through in record time, areas of the hospital are almost redundant, devoid of the usual throng of people, shockingly quiet and very clean. She is now home, appears fine, however, we are all aware that this is a warning.

I have recently moved. Previously, there had been no time to fully connect with the community in which I live. During my walks I pay greater attention to everything around me, the windows are displayed with rainbow drawings, cloud smile for loneliness and more recently, yellow heart to show loss. Some have become really competitive, up the road an upturned pallet, a square metre in size with a very large painted rainbow thanking the NHS has been anchored in the front lawn.

I am now on first name terms with my postman, who has become an unofficial social worker; and we now speak every day and compare notes. My dustmen in response to my show of appreciation pay special attention to my bins, the local shop keeper, makes sure he puts aside for me any hard to get items such as eggs, I am considered a new and valued customer following our long discussions about the dangers he and his staff have put themselves in. They are away from their families, he has to keep his livelihood going. He has lost weight and is tired. After many weeks, he finally put up screens, which proudly displays a formal letter from the local mayor acknowledging their selfless contribution in keeping the shop open at personal risk. I now know there are 137 households on my street which makes up a small part of a much wider neighbourhood, collectively we all know where the vulnerable and older people live, and all do our bit. There are several Whatsapp groups which have now increased their membership. I have made a number of new acquaintances in the surrounding area who will become friends through my daily walks and random conversation. The brilliant weather means there are more people out in their front garden who are up for a socially distanced chat, and I have developed lawn envy. There is a pride in the collective efforts of residents, charities, faith and other communities, key workers, businesses, local authorities and mainstream institutions. There is a heartfelt spirit of cooperation and ‘can do’ attitude. There is a feeling of gratitude.

I am encouraged, the community in which I live is changed forever, we discuss inequality, racism, fear and anxiety, the collapse of the economy, the rise in unemployment, and people being pushed into poverty, the working poor and the undervaluing of their labour, low carbon emission, climate change, the sound of birds, less cars on the street, those on low income jobs, with no savings to depend on, the care home sector emerging as an area requiring attention and social change. Children going back to schools and nurseries continue to charge a full fee despite not providing a service, how coronavirus disproportionately affecting black and asian minority ethnic population, many of whom continue to be discriminated against and have long been disadvantaged by social and economic injustice.

Those that cannot go out for a run, have been encouraged to walk, and bikes are being dusted off. Many are overwhelmed, it is now ‘normal’ to share feelings of confusion, fear, despair, anxiety, frustration and loneliness. At the Fitzrovia Centre we have been impacted by a further two deaths, two of the team have now lost brothers. I am mindful that with each death we have been robbed as a community and family of the right to a traditional burial and send off. I am devastated by the level of loss within the team.

At times it has been emotionally exhausting and dispiriting, but I am constantly reminded of the outpouring of community, the spirit of cooperation, an increase in philanthropy, the many volunteers that answered the call to arms, the return albeit small of a cottage industry making face masks, record breaking fundraising appeals, mutual aid groups, charity, resident, and faith group efforts. There has been an important cross over between business and community, the dissolving of boundaries, and a new appreciation of ‘care’ in whatever form it takes. We are engaging with the healthy face and positive use of technology. When this is over it will be difficult to unlearn some of the changes we have been forced to face.

The Pandemic has brought to the fore a new bottom line. When this is over, we will have learned the real meaning of community, the risk of human virtue being forgotten, we will better understand that the opportunity for a better future rests in our hands, we will wonder how we ever allowed our circumstance to dictate we spend so little time with family and friends. We will remember that whilst we may have thousands of virtual friends, human contact matters more than anything, and as social beings we need companionship from non-virtual local communities where people take part in life, and in the efforts around us. We will hopefully become better neighbours, and better friend. We will place a greater value on the so-called ‘low skilled’; we will embrace the connectivity of our roles in holding society together and to an extent to which we are all essentially ‘key workers’.

The cost of lockdown is growing rapidly, and the furlough scheme recently extended, as we ease out of the first phase in addition to saving lives it is imperative if we are to address growing inequality that we save livelihoods. We are being forced to reflect on the things that really matter and how the economy needs to be re-built on different values. Going forward it will fall on us all to ensure that the positives outweigh the negatives — we will be reminded that whilst the pandemic kills, poverty kills more.

The sentiments raised are in memory of the six deaths we have experienced at the Centre as well the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19, and unrelated illnesses. It is also in honour of the hard working, caring and committed Fitzrovia Centre Team, who will be calling on you to support our efforts to rebuild an improved model of community services for the future.

Yvonne Green has come forward to set up a virtual creative writing class, to be held possibly over the weekend. if you are interested in taking part please contact communications@fitzroviacentre.org

Keep Safe.

Pat Tulloch is director of Fitzrovia Centre, 2 Foley Street, London W1W 6DL.