Turning a crisis into a community opportunity by Martyn Goss
In a bid to help share information during the lockdown in Exeter, we are inviting people to contribute helpful articles with us on Exploring Exeter. I met Martyn Goss on a photography course and we hit it off right away. Martyn was Director of Church & Society in Devon (1983-2019) and is now a volunteer coordinator engaged in COVID 19 action in Pinhoe.
Over the past four weeks I’ve not ceased to be amazed at the generosity and goodwill of so many people in Exeter. Being involved in Community Support has meant considerable purposeful engagement with local people, some of whom are extremely vulnerable.
I have heard and witnessed some remarkable interactions and found myself in the midst of some really challenging relationships as we struggle together in the face of the pandemic. Much of this work has been managing practicalities such as collecting the right prescriptions or shopping for the correct household. Some has been more existential about how we should live and interact as neighbours, relatives, colleagues or friends.
Overall, the effects of this crisis on our lives in Exeter and elsewhere are incalculable. It has changed us and our society, for better and worse.
Maybe the strongest impacts have been social – expressed in examples of relationships between people at a very local level. These include two women in their seventies, not previously known to one another, who were both feeling alone. By putting one of them in touch with the other they can now chat on the telephone every day and develop a new friendship. Meanwhile, instead of going to the local pub or club, many of us have discovered Zoom, Facetime or Skype for the first time! We now relate online!
Or the gardener who presented me with scented plants to pass on to a blind woman. When I delivered these her husband was in the midst of a significant operation in hospital, and she said the home-made bouquet was such a source of comfort on a difficult day.
Or the dozens of plant and seed donations we’ve received for people to use in boxes or gardens.
Or the children who made plastic bead rainbows and hearts and left them on gateposts or doorsteps of the houses in their immediate vicinity, whether they knew their neighbours or not. Or the family who marked a pavement trail around Pinhoe for their peers or older people to follow for fun and exercise. Or local residents swapping recipe tips as well as ingredients for cooking creativity…
Or the woman who plucked a bloom from her flowering shrub as a token of gratitude for a visit, or the two young girls painting pebbles for the passing public as signs of hope. Or volunteers regularly telephoning people at risk to check on their welfare.
This week, following the idea of a 13 year old, we’ve launched a community tapestry encouraging younger people to put together squares of artwork depicting local life under the lockdown. These will be brought together in a park and photographed as a record of how we coped together.
There have been environmental impacts too.
Without doubt the most significant impact on our community and city has been the massive reduction in vehicular traffic. Hardly a plane in the sky, noticeably fewer cars on the roads, not many trains either. In our road we now see more people walking or cycling than we do cars.
This has no doubt contributed to the major decrease in air pollution – measured by monitors, but also apparent in less (carbon) dust in the house. The air in Exeter feels cleaner as you breathe. Even hay fever seems less problematic this year!
There is also less vehicular noise, more birdsong (maybe just more audible?) and greater appreciation of nature as we slow down and observe more of life’s natural rhythms.
As connections are being made between COVID and Climate, maybe the ecological benefits of a drastic transformation in our consumer lives, will have lasting favourable consequences for people and planet? I hear numerous comments from others welcoming the different pace of life, lack of stress, absence of traffic and increased friendliness and sense of cooperation. Surely these express something of the deeper positivity of the change brought about by this global virus.
Finally, are the economic effects.
The longer-term effects on our economy are still unknown and extremely uncertain. In the short term at a human level, we have learned to be more giving, sharing resources and ‘stuff’ in ways unthinkable to most a few weeks ago. Bartering and exchanging surpluses here – offering wants and needs there.
Yesterday, across the doorstep I was given 6 eggs which I ‘traded’ for 6 chocolate ones. I delivered some medication to an older person and asked them to make a small donation to a charity rather than pay me. Residents swap books and puzzles in our community greenhouse. Small acts of kindness can have a cumulative effect for people which is almost priceless!
There has been a kind of levelling which has prompted us to reassess our values and priorities and to question whether the financial clamps and debt-economies which so pervade our lives are really necessary. If we can write off debts for corporations and agencies, what about for struggling families and households?
On a larger scale, I find it encouraging that there is now positive discussion about the possibility of a ‘basic income scheme’, which would see all adult citizens awarded an annual income to cover their main costs of living, without regard to paid employment. Whilst paid work has been the recent means of distributing wealth in recent centuries, it’s not the only choice. When so many people are employed in demeaning, dangerous and demoralising jobs (sometimes earning incredibly low wages), we need to rethink the link between work and wealth in a significant way.
Coronavirus brings with it immense challenges to our society, our environmental behaviour and our economic priorities. Without romanticising this horrendous pandemic, which has taken so many and so much we love from us, it can nevertheless give us a chance to rethink what we are doing as human beings and what kind of future we choose to live in…
About the author: Martyn Goss, April 2020
Martyn Goss was Director of Church & Society in Devon (1983-2019), and is now a volunteer coordinator engaged in COVID 19 action through Pinhoe Community Support and Exeter Community Wellbeing
Tags: community, community spirit, corona, Exeter, pinhoe