In this Observatory Sighting, we reflect on the link between relational poverty and other forms of inequality during Covid 19

Observation

Offline modes of socialising are moving online, widening the web of participation. But significant numbers slip through the net.

Questions we’ve been asking ourselves

  • Can – and do – online forms of working and socialising build and sustain meaningful relationships? Should we encourage the continuation of these online forms of relationship making post Covid?
  • How do we support those who do not have access to technology to maintain a sense of connectedness in a period of physical distancing?
On a Sunday Morning I go to church with my Dad, though we are many miles apart. Our local vicar, Gareth, in Sunderland streams a live service on a Sunday morning via Facebook Live and youtube. It makes me feel connected to my Dad and to the community in Sunderland. It is really well done with the words to readings and hymns coming up on the screen and Gareth leading the service as he normally would except he is standing in his conservatory. Observatory Contributor

Worship, Choirs, workouts, Cameradoes Living rooms, and Little Villages for young families have all been going online in recent days. We must be careful not to uncritically digitise our relationships, but a rapid uptake in technology amongst groups who may not previously have benefitted from it is to be welcomed. However, many are ‘falling through the gaps’. Two thirds of people aged over 75 are not online and the proportion is highest amongst the most disadvantaged. In many communities this isn’t only about older people. 22% of the UK population overall, 11.9m people, lack basic digital skills and the number is 35% higher amongst people with a disability. 
In this community the digital divide is not a divide, it’s a chasm, and not only older people but families too, lots of people. We knew this was a dimension of poverty but now we see it much more clearly as an aspect of social exclusion. These people are cut off from information, school, work, worship,  shops, entertainment, communication with friends and relatives, everything really. This really sharpens the case for universal broadband. Observatory Contributor

How do we identify and include those who don’t have access to technology? 

One option is other forms of technology. Covid Call is a helpline platform developed in their down time by Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign tech team. It’s an open, free phone service for volunteers to provide advice and social contact without area constraints.

Observation

The lockdown has also revealed other dimensions of inequality which link to – and stem from – relational poverty. Access to public space has been a recurring theme this week.

Questions we’ve been asking ourselves

  • Where else are we seeing relational poverty exacerbated by other forms of inequality and what other inequalities have been exacerbated during this period by the lack of meaningful, resilient and adaptable relationships?
  • Where else is a relational approach helping to address these inequalities?
There’s something about the unevenness of relationships. That’s not only about power, although power comes into it, but is also about the resources available to a person or group of people. Public spaces are a lifeline in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people. But while I might cope with not seeing people because I can go for a run in my local park, there are other people who use such spaces who are now excluded. I was talking to a charity in Edinburgh this week that runs horticultural therapy for people with mental health problems and a walking group for isolated older people – none of that will happen now. Community gardens may become untended and overgrown. So as well as mapping the relationships that are forming in the current crisis, I think we need to pay attention to the relationships that are being torn apart. Observatory contributor

Some people will find it more challenging, or even impossible, to use public spaces under the terms of the lockdown. There have been reports, for example, of mothers breastfeeding and people with chronic pain being moved on from benches. The necessity of this can be questioned, but the renewed attention to inequalities can provide lessons.
There has long been a concern about a global health crisis caused by adult inactivity. The ongoing public debate about access to parks and green spaces has done much to highlight the inequitable distribution of what must surely be amongst the most universal of public services – used by all from preschool toddlers to retired adults. Yet within the debate, there has been evidence of a clear assertion that individuals have a “right” to daily exercise and insist on using it in the collectively owned, yet non-statutory public parks and green spaces. In future years we need to revalue how these spaces are funded and maintained – not looked at through the lens of what they cost to maintain – but through what they contribute to physical health, mental wellbeing and community cohesion. Observatory contributor

Observation

Existing support networks are able to catch those who might otherwise slip through the digital net, including those who are socially isolated

Questions we’ve been asking ourselves

  • How are existing social networks stepping in to support the most vulnerable in society? How can these be sustained going forward?
  • How have organisations and service providers adapted to support the most vulnerable and those who are digitally excluded? What from this response should be sustained?
As people have connected in new ways using technology, the rapid spread of this letter template for local copying and delivering reminded us that caring for neighbours doesn’t need to be overengineered. Similarly Frome Town Council are asking every resident to “check in with your five nearest neighbours … We have created a handy leaflet (which includes some FAQs) which we will be distributing to every household in Frome. It contains five forms for you to jot down your details and pop them safely through your neighbour’s door. You can give them your number, make sure you have theirs and know that they can call you if you are needed.”

These hyper-local initiatives are deeply relational, and will leave a legacy, at least for the short term. We might stop shopping for one another but we won’t unknow the neighbours. However coverage is inevitably patchy; one street is covered and the next one isn’t. Inevitably areas with preexisting networks and structures have got furthest, fastest – particularly in relation to those who might otherwise be excluded.  

The power of social networks 

In east London a network of 8 community hubs has been pulled together by the Barking and Dagenham Collective and is leading the local response. Each is run by a voluntary sector organisation in close partnership with the council and other community groups. Both Monica Needs, the head of participation and engagement in the council, and Avril McIntyre, chair of the Collective, told us that the rapid and effective mobilisation would not have been possible without the preexisting relationships, basic knowledge about who does what and, crucially, trust.  

The Local Area Coordination Network have been working with people who “may be isolated, causing concern or are at risk of needing formal service”, often for several years. These existing relationships have enabled Coordinators to act quickly to support those at risk. 

  • With the support of her Coordinator, a lady who has struggled with using the phone is now confidently using video calling and taking great encouragement from seeing faces online.
  • A man with learning disabilities is communicating with his Coordinator and others by sending photos and texting.
  • A Coordinator and elderly lady have been singing together on the phone and she is now connecting with others in a Zoom choir class.
  • One team of Coordinators have been delivering mobile phones and teaching people how to use them at social distance and remotely.
  • One man with brain injuries, who couldn’t connect with people before this, has now found he can online and has met 20 people who live nearby.
  • A lady who is mute hadn’t been in contact, as she and the Coordinator usually met in the community. The Coordinator reached out to the lady’s local church.  Within two hours a church member had gone to check and sent the coordinator a picture of the lady smiling at her door. The lady now has a phone and is able to text.

Thanks to this week’s contributors

The Observatory is a voluntary collaboration led by the Relationships Project. We are dependent on the eyes and ears of our observers and partner organisations and we need more.

Find out how to get involved.

The voices heard this week include Avril McIntyre, Monica Needs, Richard McKeever, Julian Dobson, Linda Woolston, Nick Sinclair and the LAC Network.