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UK volunteers brace for a Covid winter: 'Everything was depleted by the first wave'

Aamna Mohdin
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Rhoda Ibrahim is bracing for what winter will bring. The community leader, 57, was on the frontline providing food and other necessities in the London borough of Brent, which had the highest Covid death rate in England and Wales during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

She is painfully aware of how deadly the virus is: the small neighbourhood where Rhoda’s office is based, Church End, registered 36 deaths in three months.

But when she learned the UK-wide death toll had since climbed to reach the grim milestone of 60,000 this week, it still gave Ibrahim pause for thought. “It’s heartbreaking. It pains my heart and my head,” she said.

The Guardian first spoke to Ibrahim, who runs the Somali Advice and Forum of Information, in June. “It was such a disaster at the beginning. It happened all of a sudden,” she said. Now she is determined to stop the pandemic taking a painful toll a second time around.

During the summer, she distributed leaflets on the importance of social distancing, washing hands, and how to wear masks. She got funding to distribute masks to local businesses and mosques, and was trained by the local NHS trust to hold information sessions on how to stay safe during the pandemic. She launched a fundraiser to support SAAFI’s work.

Ibrahim was not alone. Charities and local officials in the worst affected areas, including the London borough of Newham, which after Brent had the highest overall age-standardised rate between April and June 2020, have mobilised since the early days to increase awareness of the virus and protect their most vulnerable communities.

But unless the government learns lessons from the first wave, and provides more tailored economic support, many people fear their areas, and others like them, will be ravaged by the virus again.

Dr Melanie Smith, the director of public health in Brent, said the council had worked hard to get the messaging right this winter. “One of the things that struck me at the beginning was the advice to households where there was somebody who was shielding, if possible to use a different bathroom. You just think, what planet are you on?”

As well as ensuring the messages were culturally competent, the council wanted to be working with the right messengers and reached out to mutual aid groups, faith organisations and community leaders such as Ibrahim.

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Smith said that “the causes of the disproportionate impacts [of Covid-19] are really deep-seated and structural, and they must get sorted, but it will take time. But we don’t have time for the second wave”. The council had worked closely with the NHS to promote the flu vaccine, improved people’s management of conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, and had run catch-up sessions for children who had missed vaccinations.

But local organisations have said these efforts alone won’t be enough. At the height of the pandemic, the Magpie Project, which supported destitute families in Newham, was delivering food, nappies and other necessities to 160 families every week. Its project director, Jane Williams, said with volunteers who had been furloughed returning to work and funding streams drying up, the organisation was uncertain where support would becoming from during the winter.

“My fear is that it’s going to be really difficult for any kind of lockdown to be effective if there’s no financial support around it. If the choice is between you going to work or you don’t eat, even if you’ve got symptoms you’re going to go to work.”

Williams said the third sector and mutual aid groups in areas such as Newham were exhausted. “Everything has kind of been depleted during the first wave and it will be really difficult to continue to support that number of people over winter.”

Williams relied on projects such as Food4All, which distributed 500 hot vegetarian meals a day during the national lockdown to families, particularly those with no recourse to public funds, as well as bigger community projects. The co-founder, Nirmal Saggu, said: “It feels as if we are in an environment where it will get worse, and we are seeing for people it is getting worse. We’re just trying to help as many people as possible.”

For Ibrahim, the most obvious lesson to be learned from the first wave is that structural inequalities and racial disparities allowed the virus to thrive. But it is a lesson that she fears has largely been ignored. “We’re still dealing with the effect of the first wave, particularly the financial situation. People have lost jobs, struggling with universal credit applications and facing evictions,” she said.