Coronavirus entered all our lives early this year and threw a harsh spotlight on the deep inequalities in our society. The pandemic exposed long-existing issues and in many cases exacerbated them.
The Renewal Commission was set up by Camden Council and UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) to explore practical solutions to some of our biggest societal challenges: inequality and the climate crisis.
This work is driven by residents’ and communities’ lived experiences. This summer, residents shared their experiences of the pandemic through stories, videos and art. We also heard stories told to other organisations in Camden, such as Ageing Better in Camden and forum+ , and stories collected by local residents from their neighbours, such as Isolating Together, a wonderful project by Camden resident Karishma Puri. These stories – alongside many others – have informed the focus areas for the Commission.
The disproportionate impact of Covid-19
We know that some communities have been hit disproportionately hard during the pandemic.
One resident said that life on a large estate was unbearable during lockdown, describing the difficulty of isolation in a noisy, overcrowded building without outdoor space.
We heard stories of the digital divide: some residents found themselves cut off from the rest of the world when they were unable to access library computers. In many schools across Camden, we found that less than half of pupils had access to computers at home for online learning.
Hunger was another key issue, made more visible by unprecedented demand at food banks and the public call for the extension of free school meals, led powerfully by Marcus Rashford.
“Food poverty is all around us,” said Camden residents Dan and Juliet. “What I will really remember is the scandal of acute food poverty, and how its shameful prevalence could no longer be hidden.”
We heard stories of struggle with loneliness and social isolation, especially from residents who have been shielding through the last few months.
“The weeks pass by in loneliness,” Harriette wrote. “The radio stations spoke about nothing else but deaths and increase in the spread of the virus.”
“If it wasn’t for the Mutual Aid volunteers helping with food and shopping, and giving me a little bit of time here and there, I don’t think I would’ve got through it,” Lisa said. “The little conversations do a hell of a lot for somebody’s mind.”
We also read stories of solidarity and the very best that humanity has to offer. Many residents spoke about the kindness of neighbours and shared how they stepped up to help others.
Lena wrote about the virtual support she received from the Greenwood Centre:
“We were all so desperate during lockdown. Our mental health was deteriorating at a ridiculous rate without having our usual main support available in its usual form… I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Leon’s efforts and I’m not exaggerating. The same goes for many others at the centre.”
“Lockdown has proved my belief that most people are fundamentally decent,” Sheila wrote.
“I know so many more people in the area,” CJ told us. After losing their job during lockdown, CJ volunteered with Swiss Cottage Mutual Aid and started shopping for a shielding neighbour every week. “We get on really well. It’s nice to have got in touch with someone locally, from a different generation.”
Hopes for the post-pandemic future
While this crisis has exposed deep injustices in our society, it has also shown the power of community and the ability of ordinary people to lead change. The Camden Renewal Commission wants to help catalyse this energy by helping people across the borough come together to achieve some bold, ambitious missions.
By Tor Marie, Apprentice Project Support Officer at London Borough of Camden.