Phoenix from the Flames

“Past the Peak”.  It’s an odd phrase: only a few weeks ago it was a friendly if slightly derogatory descriptor of age and faculties… now, we all think we understand its epidemiological significance.  The translation of – and hunger for – data in graphical form has become part of the nation’s consciousness in a way hard to imagine, but which now provides a focus which many of us “tune in to” – with a frequency previously reserved for soap operas and football scores.  The peaks of the curves we long for signify (we hope) the beginning of a return to “normal” – or at least a new normal.  But we mustn’t be misled – intentionally or otherwise: Trump’s posturing over a lower US “per capita” rate of infection than Belgium belies huge differences in the way cases have been recorded.  A case of lies, damned lies and statistics if ever there was one….

So where am I going with all this, you rightly ask!  As our collective attention shifts to what some are calling the “recovery”, “reset” or “renewal” phase of the pandemic, we fail to consider some of the other peaks at our peril.  Most immediately, we have the “care home” peak coming our way: can we contain the virus’ spread in settings which offer little opportunity for social distancing?  What about the “health inequality” peak: where people living in the areas of highest deprivation will suffer the greatest health, economic and social impacts – as they always do?  What of the relatively recent recognition that people from BaME backgrounds have a higher incidence of infection?

There are many such possible peaks to come – but I want to pick up on just a couple that I think have the power to significantly disrupt the work of the voluntary sector – and from which we must begin to plan our way.

Firstly, the “volunteer peak”.  There are many factors that influence individual capacity and willingness to volunteer: a personal affiliation to a cause; a geographical or social proximity; a collective endeavour; an identified need; a new opportunity – the list is considerable.  And in this pandemic, we have seen an almost instantaneous rush to volunteer – not only for “Support Cumbria” (registering over 2,000 volunteers to date) and the “GoodSam” app (750,000) – but the informal, local volunteering to support communities with food, medication, social contact – which has no number attached.    And we have heard that many voluntary roles have been replaced by a new cadre of volunteer: as older volunteers have needed to shield, self-isolate or care for another, they have been replaced by younger, employed-but-furloughed folk, keen to contribute to solving some of the extraordinary challenges of our times.  What will happen when workplaces, schools and communities “re-open” and there is a gradual shift back to traditional paid employment. Can we sustain this level of support and engagement once the “peak is past”?

Secondly, the “hidden health” peak.  Our “health-seeking behaviour” has changed dramatically during the pandemic.  Attendance at A&E and GP surgeries is down dramatically; formal reports of domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation and safeguarding concerns have dropped – all dips as opposed to peaks. But in our hearts, we know it is highly unlikely that our health has suddenly improved beyond all recognition, or that the worst of human nature has disappeared from the homes of the nation.  Much of this has gone underground: we are either reluctant to burden the NHS at a time of crisis – or less charitably perhaps, put ourselves at a perceived increased risk of infection.  The usual safety nets of societal discourse have disappeared overnight: vigilant teachers; doctors; neighbours; social workers – are working remotely or are understandably distracted by their own pressures.  My worry is that as we travel into the light, we could yet be struck by the “hidden health” demand peak.  Just at the point that the voluntary sector emerges, battered and bruised with reduced funds, shrunk by reduced volunteer numbers – demand for our support will be released from lockdown like a tsunami.

We must plan now to retain our new volunteers, to maintain the new spirit of mutuality and resilience in the face of adversity that has characterised our global response.  Like a Phoenix from the Flames, we must return stronger, fitter and ever more committed to the social and health equality that drives us.  Now is the time to prepare.

David Allen
Chief Executive Officer
Cumbria CVS