I live in a part of London that ranks pretty high on the index of multiple deprivation, but what we lack in wealth, we make up for in community spirit. I am on first-name terms with many of my neighbours, and to those I have not had the pleasure to meet with formally, I offer an effusive 'hello'. I am not unique in this regard: NatCen’s report on local communities shows that 83% of the British population greet their neighbours at least once a week, with only 2% saying they never offer greetings.
As I write, we are in the middle of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic; a disease that comes into its own in thriving communities. Yet while governments across the world are isolating individuals, the community has never been stronger. The longstanding idea that Western societies are built on individualism is under question. I do wonder whether humans respond as a collective when the stakes are high, when the familiar is under threat, and when what we take for granted stands on shaky ground.
Even in societies built on strong familial and communal links, the response to traumatic experiences is to come even closer together. In Rwanda, one response to the horrific 1994 genocide was a repurposing of their traditional umuganda (community work). In this initiative, engineered to bring local communities together, even known perpetrators were taken into the fold. It may not be perfect, but in light of the divisions, it served a purpose.
Bringing communities together is just what the UK Government has facilitated. At last count, a call to support the NHS during the Covid-19 outbreak generated 750,000 volunteers, putting the 250,000 target in the shade. Our research shows that 29% of people volunteer for local organisations. The response to this national crisis has made many of us want to do our bit. The big question is: will this sense of altruism be maintained post pandemic? Only time will tell.
From my own incessant consumption of news, it is clear our communities have never been stronger, and that they are becoming more fluid. Social media has come into its own, borders are truly shattered. Global, national and local boundaries are colliding; tweenies, mamas and papas are all at it.
At 8pm on Thursdays 26th March and 2nd April, alongside most of my neighbours, we came out of our homes to Clap for our Carers. This scene was repeated across the country, and in turn had been borrowed from previously afflicted countries. It was moving, and it said something about how we are all highly connected and resilient. Whilst saying thank you to our committed health professionals and those who are potentially putting themselves at risk to serve us, we could also quickly check that our neighbours were keeping safe (whilst still self-distancing).
The coronavirus thrives in tight-knit communities, and it has forced us to readjust our definition of community. We will, no doubt, also now reflect on our understanding of community in the work we do as researchers. But there is no denying that it has brought us together, opened new doors and made us realise that sometimes we need to be apart in order to save each other. I wonder what 'community 2.0' will look like when we are on the other side. I am hoping that we will come out stronger, kinder and more empathetic. I can’t wait to formally meet the neighbours I don’t yet know by name.
Health is king and community matters. Stay safe.