Could We All Do A Little More?
Authored collectively by the Communities Team
A Look at the National and Community-Led Projects Aiming to Improve Public Health and Well-Being
In recognition of World Health Day, we at Cratus want to reflect on the societal impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, thinking about national initiatives and community-led projects which have helped to tackle the decline in levels of good health and wellbeing.
A look back to March last year when the nation and indeed most countries around the globe were plunged into lockdown, new restrictions immediately put a stop to our ability to participate in the give and take of social interactions upon which the foundation of community and society depend upon. Measures such as quarantine and social distancing are, for now, a necessary part of daily life. However, these measures are not conducive to a happy and healthy lifestyle. We seek out company and depend on one another, we anticipate a friend or colleagues mood and can absorb good or bad emotions from those around us. For most of us, we rely on some level of interaction with others and the recent and dramatic reduction in social contact brings about risk to personal and public health.
Elevated levels of loneliness and social isolation has been felt across all age groups up and down the country. This will cause distress for some, but for others it can contribute to a significant decline in physical- and mental- health and wellbeing. Despite it being a longstanding problem, both the existence of loneliness and awareness of the issue has increased dramatically throughout Covid-19. Feeling isolated is no longer a public and mental health risk which only affects those on the edge of our society but something that each of us has experienced. By using innovative technology, teaching others how to get online and keeping up with the positive behaviour changes that have taken place – such as the jump in numbers of people volunteering – we hope the pandemic will be a trigger for more permanent change.
In response to the complex and multifaceted nature of this issue; individuals, organisations and local authorities have stepped up in an attempt to mitigate the impact of loneliness. Interventions have varied from country to country, from low-tech community-based programmes to high-tech digital approaches and proactive national policies. A number of countries set up telephone support services to connect volunteers with older adults, Canada developed a version of this called the Friendly Phone Program that matches people for weekly check-in calls. A Norwegian company has developed a ‘one-button computer’ designed to help those at risk of digital exclusion to stay connected with loved ones. With an internet connection and a power outlet, the computer can stream photos, send or receive messages and conduct video calls.
Germany began developing various strategies to improve the mental wellbeing of its ageing population before the pandemic. One of those strategies included setting up over 500 ‘multi-generational homes’ which bring together all age groups – from babies to 80-year-olds – and act as public living rooms to help bring together often isolated groups. These include; new mums, single parents and their children, migrants, recent retirees and the elderly, promoting togetherness and building bonds across multiple generations.
Not long after taking office, Jo Cox – Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen, set up the cross-party Loneliness Commission and following her tragic death, the group remain committed to continuing her work and legacy which has been taken forward by several colleagues through the nongovernmental Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. The Jo Cox Foundation works to highlight the causes and consequences of loneliness through the lifecycle and to advocate recommendations for change.
With government support, responses to loneliness are becoming increasingly localised as communities take the lead. Community-led volunteering groups have been shown to improve wellbeing for both the volunteers and the communities they serve. During the pandemic, the Royal Voluntary Service helped the NHS to set up the GoodSAM app. One feature of the app was a Check-in and Chat function allowing volunteers to support those at risk of loneliness due to self-isolation. The UK Government’s request for volunteers was met with over 750,000 sign-ups. This incredible response demonstrates strong community values, a willingness to support those in need and a strong common aim to help reduce social isolation.
Participatory City is a community project in Barking and Dagenham which aims to reduce social isolation and improve levels of health and wellbeing. The initiative actively encourages individuals to feel welcome, happy and connected to neighbours from all walks of life. One scheme on offer to local residents is their ‘Every One Every Day’ programme. It highlights the importance of social participation in maintaining good mental health, which has been amplified during the pandemic.
All of the national initiatives or local projects mentioned in this article are working to a shared vision of creating an inclusive society, one which promotes participation in everyday activities across the lifecycle. Any change or effort, big or small, that can reduce loneliness will also reduce or remove the associated harms which will benefit us all.