- Dr Sinéad Gormally, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Glasgow
- Dr Edward Beggan, Lecturer in the School of Education and Social Sciences, University of the West of Scotland
- Dr Annette Coburn, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Social Sciences, University of the West of Scotland
This thinkpiece explores our ideas on moving beyond the current and unprecedented global situation of coronavirus (COVID-19) as a health crisis to consider how ‘life in lockdown’ sharpens focus on community and raises questions for policy and practice. In considering where we go from here, we begin by exploring the current context and what we mean by community to show how these have been impacted by COVID-19. Finally, we consider questions on the role of community work and use this to inform questions on how this exceptional situation could serve as a catalyst for cohesion and social change. Specifically, we assert the need to revitalise the current system by valuing and appreciating well-being in parallel with market-driven priorities to create a more socially equitable world where well-being and community are foundational to a good life for all (Sen, 1985).
On Monday 19 March, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced wide ranging instructions on social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. These measures have gradually been increased with the shielding of those deemed as ‘high risk’; self-isolation of those with symptoms or living with someone with symptoms; and movement restrictions, requesting people to “Stay at home to save lives”. The impact of this on our freedom to go shopping, socialise with friends or visit family, can have repercussions for our mental health, as most people function well by sustaining daily routines.
Research undertaken by a global public relations company analysed a representative sample of 1000 people to identify the most effective means of communicating a public health message. Findings showed that appealing to people’s good nature and sense of community are the most effective ways to communicate crucial public health messages (Hill+Knowlton Strategies 2020). Critically then, “Community matters to neoliberals because it sells” (Blackshaw 2010, p. 294). Yet, despite an inherent scepticism on the marketisation of community, if it does ‘sell’ in this instance then community is helpful in conveying a vitally important message. This may validate the contribution of community work alongside discussions in the health and care sector during a crisis like this. ‘Community work’ here is aligned with unrecognised professional fieldwork practices in adult education, community development and youth work that comprise Community, Learning and Development (CLD); practices that have also been undervalued for years. However, we believe that the current context provides a common narrative for re-asserting the importance and value of community and its purpose including and beyond times of crisis or insecurity.
So…what is community?
Although the academic debate about what is community persists (Bauman, 2012; Blackshaw, 2010, Coburn and Gormally, 2017; Cooper, 2008; Delanty, 2018), our work is grounded in a conceptualisation of community as a means of promoting and sustaining cohesion, commonality and connection that creates a sense of belonging and togetherness. A kind of “safety device…where people…connect together for their improved sense of security” (Coburn and Gormally, 2017, p. 78). Communities come in all shapes and sizes, as exemplified in physical or geographical communities, special interest groups and virtual spaces which offer both compensation and escape from the ‘real’ world (Delanty, 2018). Discussion about the need for community, the changing nature of community, and the introduction of technology has been brought into focus during this pandemic.
Today we are living in a time of uncertainty – what Bauman (2000; 2012) describes as “liquid modernity” – and in these times he argues that the concept of community assists people to find roots in a precarious existence. In response to changing CLD practice circumstances and concern about, “corporate-state induced individualism…[that has]…led to the corrosion of cooperation and commitment to others” (Cooper, 2008) we assert community as a bricolage (making something from whatever is available). This conceptualises, “disparate types of community…drawing together old, new and as yet, unimagined forms of community in local and global contexts” (Coburn and Gormally, 2017, p. 85). Three years on from that writing the current crisis has produced an unimagined form of community, where people are unable to physically connect and life is even more precarious and uncertain, and the need for connectivity is stronger than ever. It remains clear that, “a community is sustained because individual people believe in it to be important…[and]…the concept persists in different forms as a touchstone for the animation of people…working together for the common good” (Coburn and Gormally, 2017, p. 91). The importance of collective community resilience was also identified as a means to “mitigate risk and bring more widespread community benefits that facilitate action for social change.” (p.151). This meant that people could be connected around a community of practice or a particular cause, issue or area of interest. Living through this pandemic, it comes as no surprise to us that people both globally and locally are coming together in many creative and new ways to develop a sense of community.
The impact of COVID-19 on the sense of community
Pictures from around the world of singing from balconies, clapping and cheering frontline workers, and children’s rainbow drawings signify support for NHS staff are explicit public displays of collective action and cohesion. They offer multiple examples of localised neighbourliness and symbolise community support.
Regarding the resurgence in community during this crisis, a letter to the Guardian newspaper noted that “A month ago we lived in communities, alone; now we are beginning to live alone, but in community…this offers hope”.
Yet, whilst outward displays of solidarity have a positive impact on individual people feeling part of something and of the neighbours helping each other, it would be remiss of us not to note that successive UK Governments have undermined community development by actively demolishing community services and reducing resources:
“Social polic[ies] since the 1980’s have led to: increased de-industrialisation and the dismantling of social protections; public sector cuts and privatisations; the rise of new managerialism; the erosion of ‘care’ in all areas of welfare organising; and widening inequalities and social tensions.”Hughes, G., Cooper, C., Gormally, S. and Rippingale, J. The state of youth work in austerity England – reclaiming the ability to ‘care’, 2014, p. 3
This continual dismantling of community services through austerity measures left some areas across the UK with no statutory youth services and a reduction in community-based services, which were relied upon by those in greatest need. The adoption of ‘work first’ welfare policies and reductions in the amount of state support available to vulnerable individuals, particularly since the Great Recession, has resulted in communities and individuals most in need seeing their services and support cut first. The Rapporteur to the UN General Assembly identified:
“…much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”.Alston, Philip. Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (PDF), 2019, p. 4
Adding COVID-19 to an already fatigued social policy context has produced a particularly rapid impact among those whose circumstances include pre-existing inequalities, such as low-income families, and those with complex or life-limiting conditions. A surge in applications for Universal Credit since the lockdown suggests an increasing economic toll that will be felt for months. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the challenges facing people locked into poverty mean they are:
“…more likely to experience anxiety, depression and other mental health difficulties…more likely to have insecure jobs, with fewer rights and employee benefits…[and] less likely to have savings to help cover additional unplanned costs or gaps in income.”Barnard, Helen. Coronavirus: what does it mean for people restricted by poverty? 18 March 2020
The lives, and life chances, of the poorest families and communities are further impacted by requirements for home learning, adding feelings of guilt and inadequacy to already mentally and financially vulnerable households, where ‘making ends meet’ stretches to a mobile phone but not to a personal laptop or home internet connection. Noting related concerns, Alston (2020) suggests COVID-19 responses are failing the poor and that, “Now is the time for deep structural reforms that will protect populations as a whole and will build resilience in the face of an uncertain future.”
Policy and practice in a reformed social context: revitalising community through CLD?
Community Learning and Development (CLD) practitioners are identified as an essential workforce in the Covid-19 response across communities in Scotland – working with all ages to support food banks, residential care and other essential services, creating new on-line learning, benefit and housing advice, creating experiences to improve well-being and social contact and implementing telephone family, information or befriending services.
Yet, while this urgent work is critical to keeping people safe and well, right now, the call for ‘deep structural reform’ requires us all to consider where we go from here. Derived from a radical political tradition and a social culture in Scotland, CLD is grounded a vision of education as key to making a good life. Taking popular culture and lived experience as the starting point for conversation and dialogue, CLD promotes learning about difference and hierarchical power relations to create opportunities for a liberating and hopeful pedagogy that is concerned with emancipatory practice.
CLD was established as Community Education (Alexander Report, 1975), which sought to advance a relevant and community-based curriculum for pluralist democracy by assisting in managing ‘the tensions between the policies of the state and the politics of communities’ (Tett, 2010, p. 18). This ethos remains as a driver of CLD practice, which sees participants as social actors engaged in dialogue to promote social change. The Regulatory framework for CLD in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2013) requires all local authorities to ensure provision of CLD core services as part of its commitment that integrates with a range of different services. Yet, its introduction, just prior to the implementation of austerity policies across the UK, has curtailed the strengthening and consolidation of policy and services to support this regulatory framework. The idea of community and CLD is strong, but its purpose has become more service-driven than emancipatory in its focus (Coburn and Gormally, 2017). To achieve its emancipatory purpose CLD needs to be positioned at the heart of policies on community empowerment, addressing poverty and raising attainment.
The resurgence of community that we are presently experiencing creates an impulse to revisit and strengthen policy in this area in line with interests on well-being, equality and social justice. Taking an egalitarian stance, CLD can support action towards a better Scotland. For example, driven by an economy for well-being in tandem with financial market drivers, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon states, “Scotland is redefining what it means to be a successful nation by focusing on the broader wellbeing of the population as well as the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the country”.
The new normal
In a recent interview with Channel 4 News, Nicola Sturgeon used the phrase “we are going to have to find a new normal”. It is an interesting concept and does not go unnoticed in terms of CLD and wellbeing. Although the context may have been more aligned to current measures that are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, there is a bigger picture to consider in the aftermath of this pandemic.
It is indeed encouraging that the sense of coming together is at the forefront of everyone’s thinking and shows not just the need, but also the desire, for such humanity. However, we are concerned by a cynical undertone in the narrative around community: political parties use it as a means to sweep the prevalence of inequality and poverty under the carpet, while policies in place prior to the pandemic significantly limited the resources to the front line to support communities most in need. Key workers, community workers, youth workers, health workers and ‘low skilled’ workers know only too well, the negative effect that austerity policies at the national, and by extension local, level has on individuals and ultimately our society.
Our concern is that the current narrative around community and ‘bringing the country together’, so to speak, is that of a tokenistic nature. Once this is all over, those whose interests are served by the current neoliberal agenda will arguably be trying their utmost to maintain the capitalistic normal that we have been sold. Surely, if anything, we have seen a glimmer of change that is more aligned with prioritising wellbeing. The challenge for those whose work centres in improving the lives of communities often left behind is understanding how best to harness the current positivity around community spirit for sustainable and seismic change.
As community educators and academics in the field of CLD we will continue to argue for resources and the emancipatory nature of community work in how it shapes our society. This must be better recognised in a world where poverty is so prevalent and accepted. However, policy drivers, makers, and writers are in powerful positions to shape the new normal, which will determine the direction of a society that is functioning to its fullest capacity. Although no one would wish to be in this current context we have an opportunity to transform policy and society where the contribution of all is valued.
- Alston, Philip (2019) Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Available at https://undocs.org/A/HRC/41/39/Add.1
- Alston, Philip, “Responses to COVID-19 are failing people in poverty worldwide” – UN human rights expert, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights, 22 April 2020 Available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25815&LangID=E
- Blackshaw, T. (2010) Key Concepts in Community Studies, London: Sage.
- Bauman, Z (2012) Liquid Modernity (2nd ed), Cambridge, Polity Press with Oxford, Blackwell
- Coburn, A., and Gormally, S., (2017) Communities for Social Change: Practicing Equality and Social Justice in Youth and Community Work. New York, Peter Lang
- Cooper, C. (2008) Community, Conflict and the State: Rethinking, Notions of ‘Safety’, ‘Cohesion’ and ‘Well-being’ London, Palgrave
- Delanty, G. (2018) Community (3rd ed), London: Routledge.
- Hill+Knowlton Strategies (2020) Research reveals appealing to our best nature is the most effective way to communicate through Covid-19. Available at https://hkstrategies.co.uk/news-research-reveals-appealing-to-our-best-nature-is-the-most-effective-way-to-communicate-through-covid-19/
- HMSO (1975) The Alexander Report: The Challenge of Change. In C. McConnel (2002) The Making of an Empowering Profession (3rd ed). Available at http://cldstandardscouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/The_Making_of_An_Empowering_Profession_-_3rd_Edition_-_pdf.pdf
- Hughes, G., Cooper, C., Gormally, S. and Rippingale, J. (2014) The state of youth work in austerity England – reclaiming the ability to ‘care’. Youth and Policy, 113: 1-14. Available at http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/134888/
- Sen, A. (1985) Well-being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures, 1984, The Journal of Philosophy, 82: 169-221. Available via JSTOR subscription at www.jstor.org/stable/2026184
- Scottish Government, (2013) Regulatory framework for Community Learning and Development in Scotland. Available at https://education.gov.scot/education-scotland/scottish-education-system/cld/about-community-learning-and-development
- Tett, L. (2010). Community Learning and Development, (3rd ed.). Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press.
Written content is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence.
To cite this article: Gormally, Sinéad; Beggan, Edward; and Coburn, Annette. Community, COVID-19, challenge and change, Policy Scotland, 4 May 2020, https://policyscotland.gla.ac.uk/community-covid-19-challenge-and-change/