The keyworker next door? Reflections from a community psychologist, one year into the global pandemic

Community connections and Covid-19

Community psychology is at the heart of my teaching and research. My introductory lecture begins with a discussion of the changing definitions of community, which was once limited to community of place, our neighbours and those in our immediate locality. Of course, community still holds this definition and much crucial research is ongoing into ‘communities of place’ but we now work with a much broader set of definitions. A ‘community’, I tell my students, is a collective of individuals based upon on of the following:

  • Shared space
  • Shared heritage or background
  • Shared identity or passions

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged how we connect with our communities. For the most part, phone, email, social media, Zoom quizzes and the like, have facilitated and maintained those latter connections; those with our family, friends and social groups.

The loss of neighbourhood

But what about neighbourhoods? Our communities of place? In a national lockdown, the only people we see (our key workers aside) without the aid of an LCD screen are our neighbours and those in our local area. Research in 2018 found that over half of Britons described their neighbours as strangers, wouldn’t know their children’s names or what profession they worked in. In a time where our only legal source of exercise is our local area do communities of place become more vital? Are 50 per cent of us clapping for carers with not knowing that the keyworker next door is on a late shift rather than lacking in community spirit by not taking to her doorstep?

When there is no community of place

When our physical space in the world is narrowed to our local area, the question of how accessible, safe and friendly neighbourhoods are becomes vastly more important. I’m reminded that not everyone has the privilege of accessible, safe or friendly outdoor space. Whether through lack of adequate pavements for those with prams, wheelchairs or mobility issues, fear of crime or fear of discrimination, some people cannot or will not have access to fresh air and outside space local to their home. I was initially relieved to see that one council in the West Midlands had issued advice for families living in high-rise flats. Sadly, this advice comprised of a series of additional rules to ensure social distancing was adhered to in these buildings, rather than more holistic advice on how to stay well.

My community of place

I moved house in the last year and like many can say that in the time since, I’ve seen my neighbours more than I’ve seen my family. Walks through the neighbourhood with my partner have been more important that ever for keeping well and grounded when much of my life is now lived through a screen. A consequence of this is that I’ve spent more time reflecting on the local geography, from the inclines and declines, to green spaces, cleanliness and friendliness of the people. Luckily, Stoke-on-Trent has some of the friendliest people so despite its bad press, I’ve felt generally comfortable walking hand-in-hand with my same-sex partner through town. I feel lucky to be mobile and feel safe in my local area. I know that not everybody can say this.

Communities need care

We need to look after our communities of place, now more than ever. I’ve loved hearing of initiatives such as rock painting and getting involved myself briefly helping out as an NHS volunteer. Are we in a new era of ‘love thy neighbour’? As an introverted atheist, I wouldn’t go that far. I also wouldn’t want to suggest that the burden of reinvigorating neighbourhoods should fall on us an individuals, this is a broader issue where local and national government can and should facilitate community cohesion through adequate maintenance of spaces and places. I do however feel that we could all do a little more to be mindful of those without the means to connect with others, those without the digital resources and those who are dependent on communities of place. We need to remember those more isolated in our communities, the older person in need of a hand with their food shopping or the key worker next door. Next time I smile and say hello to my neighbour, I’ll ask them what they do for a living.

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