A View From England
By David Winder
Five years ago, when I retired from the position of CEO of WaterAid in New York City, Molly and I settled in a small market town of 5,000 inhabitants in the county of Derbyshire, in the East Midlands. We chose Bakewell because it is 10 miles from where Molly was born and is at the heart of the beautiful Peak District, the first National Park in the United Kingdom, created just after the Second World War.
In early March, we had just returned from a two-week visit to Cuba when it became evident that the UK would soon become the latest epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. After a lengthy and costly delay, the government announced a national lockdown on March 23. Citizens in non-essential work were encouraged to work from home and the government asked everyone except essential workers to remain at home except for exercise and the purchase of food and medical prescriptions.
As of April 28, the lockdown measures are still in place, but due for a formal review on May 7. The expectation is that the lockdown will continue after that date. In every announcement made at the daily update from 10 Downing Street, the central messages of “Stay at Home” and “keep a social distance of six feet from everyone except those in your household” have been repeated.
With very few exceptions, these measures taken to slow down the spread of the virus have been respected. In addition, more than 700,000 individuals have volunteered to help attend to the needs of the vulnerable. Gradually, many of the volunteers have been allocated duties.
What has been our response to the lockdown measures? We live on a small private street with no through traffic near the center of the town. Because the houses are close together and we see our neighbors on a daily basis, we thought we had the potential to build a strong community response to withstand the potentially negative effects of the lockdown.
We knew that eight neighbors lived alone and six dwellings had double or triple occupancy. We estimated that all but six people were over 70 years old and at least three had pre-existing medical conditions, which meant they were especially vulnerable.
Drawing on the experience of our daughter, who had created space for discussion and action on her street in Edinburgh, we invited all the residents to bring their chairs into the street to chat about community needs and required action. There was almost 100 percent turnout at mid-day on the first Monday after the lockdown. We moved up and down the street to consult with everyone. It was clear from the response that everyone wanted to meet on a regular basis, to share experiences and discuss ways of helping each other.
Following this initial meeting, we quickly established a routine of street interaction on Mondays at 12:30, Wednesdays for coffee at 11, Thursdays at 8 p.m. when we applaud all those on the frontline tackling the pandemic, and Saturdays at 5 for a drink.
The flowering of community solidarity that has resulted from this “street initiative” has produced the following outcomes:
One neighbor collects food orders for a supermarket home delivery. Molly takes orders for garden supplies and arranges delivery from a local market garden. Residents under the age of 70 walk into town, collect prescriptions and other pharmacy supplies and post letters. One resident has arranged for regular deliveries of milk from a local farmer. Another neighbor has arranged for a local newsagent to deliver newspapers and fresh groceries. Finally, books and DVDs are exchanged after being disinfected.
We have observed many side benefits. Residents who live alone value the opportunity to meet others and discuss concerns, health issues and local and national news. It is a chance for residents to jointly attempt to make sense of the sometimes confused and contradictory messages coming from the government. People also discuss what action needs to be taken in the event of developing Covid 19 symptoms.
It is evident to us that neighbors appreciate the chance to discuss other subjects. Once I took out my guitar and song sheets and our spirits were raised singing American and European folk songs. Molly and neighbors have also benefited from sharing gardening experience, seeds and plants. Victory gardens are springing to life.
People have wondered if there is the danger of disease transmission in this community interaction. We take great care to observe the government’s “social distancing” recommendations, though we prefer the term “physical distancing” as we are in the business of building social solidarity.
Finally, we have begun a discussion on how we will preserve much of what we have achieved in terms of self-help at this micro level once the lockdown ends. There is clearly an emerging consensus that we shouldn’t return to business as usual.
David Winder was the Ford Foundation’s Regional Representative for Mexico and Central America from 1982 to 1986 and its Regional Representative for Southeast Asia from 1987 to 1992.
|Shepard Forman 5/13/2020 7:31:14 AM
Really nice to read this, David, and learn of your local community response. Glad to know you and Molly are well. Warmest regards from me and Leona. Shep