In brief

In this milestone blog David Robinson takes the temperature as we approach the second anniversary of Covid 19. The UK is stuck in a pattern of “shuffle and repeat” with fears for the future, but also the possibility of hope.

The past two years have caused significant hardship for many, if not all. One area of light over this time has been the horizontal forms of support that have emerged within our communities. Side by Side is a peer support programme for anyone seeking to nurture and sustain community activity without controlling and constraining it. Find out more here. 

A national disaster

I am a community worker and a community worker without optimism is like a plumber without tools. You can’t do the job. I am also a realist and those who talk about “returning to normal” like we are skipping back to the playground after a summer shower haven’t read the room. As one Relationships Observatory contributor told us “shit got real” in 2021. A politician’s lexicon of euphemisms cannot distract from heart wrenching experience.

Covid has been, still is, and will be for some time to come, a national and international disaster.

Lets start with “disaster” – not a word to be lightly deployed. Co-Founder of the After Disaster Network, Professor in Practise at Durham University and Relationships Project Associate Neil Denton says “a disaster is any event that 1) causes significant harm or disruption to life, 2) requires resources beyond those normally available to the affected population.”

How to judge “significant harm” and “requiring resources beyond those normally available”?  I have written here before about the 4 to 1 formula – the ratio of preventable or early deaths resulting from the one event  over three or four years, as compared to those that are recorded as an immediate consequence. In the case of Covid in the UK these preventable deaths stem particularly from the shift in resources away from early testing and treatment of non Covid related diseases like cancer and from the implications of non-pharma interventions on managing the pandemic, e.g. the lockdown effect on obesity, heart disease, depression, DV, self-harm and suicide, drug/alcohol and other addictions.

We may never know the exact number, we certainly don’t yet, but at the moment it seems likely that around one million people in the UK have died or will die as an immediate or short term (three to four year) consequence of Covid. Many more will be living with what we have called deep tissue damage – the negative effects on relationships, and on mental as well as physical health, that will remain long after the virus   

So, Neil concludes, “defining Covid 19 as a disaster fits with the academic literature. It fits with the relevant legislation (Civil Contingencies Act 2004). Arguably, the only thing it doesn’t fit with is the current U.K. Government. narrative.”

In 2022 we need to talk about disaster and disaster recovery. Being coy about the language that we use distorts our understanding. It limits our capacity to learn from elsewhere and it diminishes the license for change.  

Learning from elsewhere

International studies have shown consistent patterns of social behaviour in the wake of disasters elsewhere.


Up to the dotted vertical line the UK experience of Covid has broadly matched this pattern but here, as we now approach the second anniversary, the UK has stuck in a holding pattern of “shuffle and repeat” – moments of respite and optimism, perhaps a few weeks of false dawn, then another wave of grief and anxiety. We have been plotting these passages on the Relationships Observatory, using the language of our Observers.

Covid hasn’t been one catastrophic event followed by crisis response and gradual recovery. It has been a “slow disaster” – a prolonged period of disruption and loss with repeated acute episodes experienced differently at different times, in different households and different communities. Collectively we are still stuck in this phase.

My own family is a case in point. Last weekend ministers ordered civil servants back to the office. On the same day my double jabbed and boosted wife felt ill and tested positive for the second time. She presumably picked up the virus at the school where she works and where a fresh wave of Covid is now running rampant. Family birthday celebrations were cancelled again. Nothing more than countless families have experienced off and on for many months, but dispiriting none the less.

‘Languishing’ in shuffle and repeat

Each cycle of Shuffle and Repeat increases the exhaustion. The positive undercurrents – the shifts in attitudes and behaviours that we identified in the Honeymoon – have not evaporated entirely but the optimism and energy is much diminished. Trust has been hammered especially hard by recent tales of irresponsibility in the highest places but it was already falling as consensus crumbled at the edges and patience snapped on mask wearing, vaccination, Christmas restrictions and much more.

On top of Covid many people are desperately worried about money – not only those who were struggling before the pandemic but a substantial additional tranche of the so called working poor. Consumer price inflation was higher last month (5.6%) than it has been for 30 years, and upcoming leaps in fuel costs will further turn the screw. All this tests and undermines our relationships and shapes our social behaviour. As one family told the Observatory last year “Covid is only the third thing on my list of things to worry about.” 

Now in communities across the UK we see rising levels of anxiety, an emotional heaviness that is pressing deeper and deeper, and a brittle fragility as tolerance wears thin. 

Mental health practitioners  describe such a state of mind  as “languishing” (as opposed to “flourishing”) – a condition that is characterised by anxiety, fatigue and negativity, feelings of emptiness and helplessness, a sense that life is out of control and we are powerless to change it.  

An international study found that 10% of the population were languishing in 2020. I have not been able to find more recent numbers, and these are bad enough, but I suspect they would be higher in the UK now. 

The aggregated impact of Shuffle and Repeat is draining not only individuals, but also communities.

A flourishing community in any setting – a school perhaps, a tower block, a set of streets or a work place, is harmonious, energetic and successful. A languishing community is none of these things. 

Where ever we are we need to get the mojo back but minimising the impact of the pandemic, or pretending that it is over when it isn’t, is as useful to the country as telling a friend to cheer up and pull themselves together.

We can’t do this alone but we are not without agency. There is possibility, and precedent, for doing it together if we…

Name it and understand it

The recurring pattern of shuffle and repeat increases uncertainty and anxiety. It is natural to feel empty and exhausted. It is inevitable that, if significant numbers of people are languishing, so too will our communities, and many of the organisations and institutions where we associate and work together. Ignoring or rejecting these truths only delays or undermines recovery.

Give ‘time, space and respect’ to recovery

If we do not allow for the need to process bereavement, recover from trauma and repair relationships we will pay the price for years to come. In his recent book Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence GP Gavin Francis says “Give time, space and respect to convalescence … It is an act that we need to engage in, giving of ourselves; a work of effort and endurance, and to a certain extent, of grace.”

Own the past. All of it.

Recall truthfully the things that weren’t working pre covid – the unfairness, the waste, the version of ourselves and of our communities that fell so far short of what we have achieved on our better days in the last two years. Why would we want to hurry back when so much could be improved?

Precedent and possibility

Out of the grief and destruction of World War 2 our parents and grandparents fashioned a new settlement that was, for most people most of the time, better than the old. With the same care, and courage and honesty we can do the same, if not nationally at least in the small places close to home. It is an obvious observation, but also true.

The defining disaster of our time is not a war, it is not of that order, but it is a disaster. Its consequences are ongoing and will be for years, but it opens a crack if we are minded to notice.

My point is this: 2022 won’t be an end, but it could be a beginning.

The Relationship’s Project is ….

Running Side by Side – a six session peer training programme to help to nurture, sustain and evolve community activity without controlling and constraining it.  Book your place here.

Working with Neil Denton and using our Bridge Builders’ Handbook to help local communities connect with others and “think like mediators” 

Co-convening with Barking and Dagenham council a network for local authorities to explore together the development of a relational council. Find out more here.


Read more