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Alone Together

Charles Campion reflects on how the power of community is being showcased during lockdown.

This article was first published on the jtp.co.uk website on 22 April 2020.

The success of humankind on this earth is to large extent a function of our ability to socialise and collaborate. We form communities for mutual benefit, the collective gain is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Historically our cities, towns and villages were the product of many local hands and designed to suit the social, economic and cultural needs of the communities they served. The African proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ recognises the necessity of multiple inputs and collaboration.

But in our fast paced, contemporary world our sense of community can often feel fractured. Decisions that affect our lives and our places are often taken remotely, and communities can feel they have little control. People can withdraw, feeling disempowered, frustrated and isolated.

Community-led tactical urbanism – Barnes Community Association has organised road space reallocation to pedestrians to provide space for social distancing.

With the lockdown keeping us in our homes, there is a danger that people feel even more alone and separated from their communities. But in many places, this unprecedented alteration to our lives has seen a remarkable rekindling of solidarity and togetherness. Our community spirit has been reawakened and reasserted with a confident, caring voice. Lack of physical proximity isn’t preventing communities from mobilising, rather, it’s catalysing just that!

I’ve been heartened to see what is unfolding. In my west London neighbourhood, the Barnes Community Association has coordinated a shopping delivery scheme called Barnes Community Shop with independent retailers and local volunteers with cargo bikes delivering the orders to elderly and vulnerable residents. [Since this article was written the service has now been opened up to serve all residents.] The Barnes Environment Group has also taken the initiative (with the local council’s blessing) to reduce road space outside shops so that queueing shoppers and pedestrians have enough space to socially distance.

In Todmorden, home of Incredible Edible, the Kindness Hub is working with the Real Junk Food project to redistribute excess food from supermarkets for ‘pay as you feel’ or free to anyone who can’t pay. And Apocalypse Chow is making and delivering meals at cost price to local vulnerable people – all food is prepared fresh and to the highest possible standard by a local, award winning chef.

In Todmorden, Incredible Edible are working with The Real Junk Food Project to distribute food boxes. Image credit: The Todmorden Team

Elsewhere in the UK, thousands of mutual aid groups have been picking up shopping and prescriptions, installing digital equipment for elderly people and setting up telephone friendship teams.

Globally, the pandemic has triggered community action on a vast scale. In Norway, a group of Covid-19 recoverees is now providing services that would be dangerous for non-immune people to offer. In India, young people have self-organised on a huge scale, providing aid packages for those most in need. Students in the Czech Republic are babysitting the children of doctors and nurses. In the Philippines, fashion designers have repurposed their workshops to produce protective suits. In Wuhan, China, volunteer drivers created a community fleet, transporting medical workers between their homes and hospitals. All over the world, self-organised groups of doctors, technicians, engineers and hackers are crowdsourcing missing equipment and expertise.

What does this tell us about ourselves and our communities? It tells us that we find purpose, motivation and pride by working together to help each other. In this time of crisis, our community spirit has been reawakened and highlighted – we are demonstrating and putting into action our powers of collaboration.

My expectation is that this resurgence of compassion, community and collective action will survive the pandemic. Its resilient power has been recognised by individuals, agencies and governments alike. Something positive is re-rooting itself – something that was always there but was largely overlooked: the delightful, transformative and essential force of local, mutual action.

At this time of lockdown, the best of humanity has come to the fore empowering individuals to connect and make a positive difference – we may be alone, but we are together.

Community action to support local retailers and residents: Barnes Community Association has organised cargo bike deliveries from local independent shops to elderly and vulnerable residents.