Dr Raghib Ali is an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust.
With numerous news stories over the weekend highlighting the stockpiling of goods leading to shortages for NHS staff and the elderly, nurses being abused and spat at, thefts of hand sanitizer from hospitals, and thieves using the current crisis to defraud and steal from the most vulnerable in society, it is easy to despair at the behaviour of some of our fellow citizens and the state of our society.
But beyond these headlines, something remarkable is happening all across the county which should bring us hope in these challenging times. In every city, town, and village – without direction from the government or local councils – huge numbers of people are coming together and volunteering to help the most vulnerable in society. In just over a week, over 3000 ‘coronavirus mutual aid groups’ have been formed – some with thousands of members, others a handful – but all with the same aim of seeing how they can help those in need (the elderly, disabled, self-isolating, etc.) They are providing all manner of services including delivering food and medicines, collecting prescriptions, completing errands, walking dogs, and often, most importantly, offering moral and emotional support to those who are living on their own; or are carers dealing with highly stressful situations at the best of times.
In our own group in High Wycombe, in less than a week, over 1,200 people had joined the group with hundreds of individual commitments to help their fellow citizens, and many people have been working in their evenings and weekends to put in place robust processes to ensure that volunteers are matched to those in need – while ensuring that protections are in place with regard to safeguarding, data protection, dealing with money, etc. to ensure that no-one is taken advantage of. We have had people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, political affiliations, and faiths working together, with differences and divisions being put aside for the common good.
I haven’t had time to count the numbers of all volunteers across all 3,000 groups (and there are countless others not listed) but there must be over a million – which must be the largest group of volunteers for a single cause ever seen in the UK in peacetime.
As an NHS consultant used to seeing the heroic efforts of many of my colleagues, I have nonetheless been inspired and humbled by the many small acts of kindness and sacrifices from ordinary people that I have witnessed over the last week. There have also been countless examples of organisations including churches, mosques, and businesses, large and small helping their local communities – through providing free food, deliveries, taxis rides, and accommodation for NHS staff. Finally, it seems we are re-discovering the importance of strong communities and societies.
As David Cameron famously said, “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. The response we have seen over the last week shows how the state and society are working together to tackle the unprecedented challenges we face. 10 years after David Cameron launched the big society, it seems it has finally arrived.
What has been particularly encouraging is that the vast majority of people organising these groups and volunteering are from younger generations – belying the stereotypes of the so-called ‘me, me, me’ generation.
More broadly, through staying at home and following NHS guidance we are all being asked to do something which may not benefit us directly – but could literally save the lives of many others. Many of us who are younger, fitter and healthier may feel these unprecedented measures are unnecessary and this is a test for all of us – and particularly for the young – and I hope we will see everyone complying without recourse to curfews or fines.
This crisis presents an opportunity for our nation and can leave an important legacy of volunteering and looking out for others; of thinking of your neighbour before yourself, and of stronger families and communities. Many of these needs existed before this crisis and will continue beyond – over a million older people go months without speaking to anyone, and thousands live on our streets – and we need to ensure that once this crisis is over, we don’t just go back to the way things were before.
The coronavirus crisis, much like World War Two, will help define what kind of country we are. Will our grandchildren look back at this time with pride as we do to our previous generations who were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save others? What we are being asked to do is much smaller – but every one of us has an important contribution to make – by looking after the elderly and the most vulnerable in our society, and following the advice to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives.
I hope this time will not be remembered for people fighting over toilet rolls but for how we came together as a nation, made sacrifices to help each other and not only overcame the coronavirus, but left a kinder, better, and more United Kingdom.