A crisis will usually draw out both the best and the worst sides of humanity. From grown men barging elderly women out of the way in a supermarket aisle so they can grab hold of the last tin of soup, to single mums offering lifts to older folk who can’t now get their shopping delivered – the coronavirus pandemic is exposing the self-centred and revealing the compassionate.
At Hastings Foodbank, we are experiencing both. Unnecessary stockpiling has caused us to be desperately short of some of the essential items we give to people trapped in poverty. Like the supermarkets, our shelves are bare when it comes to long-life milk, tinned vegetables, and at least half a dozen other items we usually give out as part of a nutritionally-balanced food parcel.
We are trying everything within our means to replenish our stocks, knowing that the need is set to rise over the coming weeks. We are three or four weeks behind London in terms of the Covid-19 outbreak, but as an already deprived seaside town with a precarious economy, we have already seen people turning to us because coronavirus has left them unemployed.
“I have never thought I’d need to come to a foodbank” is something we’re already hearing more frequently. It came first of all from a man who worked in the leisure industry until a few days ago, but was laid off when we were advised to keep away from restaurants, pubs and theatres. With pre-school children, he was beside himself wondering how he will cope.
A few days later, the same words again: this time from a woman whose lucrative self-employment – a media career of 20 years – abruptly came to an end last week, when all of her future bookings and appointments were cancelled overnight. With a large mortgage, teenage children and no prospects of future work, she said: “I always drop a can of food in the basket at the supermarket, but I’ve never imagined I’d need to ask for your help.”
We have also already seen people at our foodbank who are there because their children are off school, and they cannot feed them
We have also already seen people at our foodbank who are there because their children are off school, and they cannot feed them – but this isn’t just about food. On Friday I had a few awkward conversations with teenage girls about which sanitary products they need and cannot get hold of. I wonder if those who have stockpiled tampons think through the impact of prioritising their own needs so resolutely.
Our foodbank is coping too with the impact on volunteers. A huge number of ours are in high risk categories, so are not coming in – but others from the church and local agencies who are fit and healthy have stepped in so we’re covered. While we’re worried for our regular volunteers and hoping they will stay healthy, we’re also encouraged by those who are turning up to help. When there’s so much to feel despondent about, this is heart-warming.
We are also coping with the proximity issue: our foodbank manager has completely reconfigured our set-up so that we can keep both volunteers and clients as safe as possible. Instead of our usual welcoming atmosphere with hot drinks and cakes, as well as a friendly chat, we are now asking clients to wait outside in our car park, at a safe distance from us and from each other, while we get food ready for them. Volunteers are separated into teams – those in the packing area stay there, depositing bags of food on the opposite side of some white tape stuck to the floor when they’re ready, so that those in the distribution area can pick them up and move them to the point from which clients can take them. We usually pride ourselves on how friendly and caring we are. Now keeping everyone separate is key.
But the hardest thing for us at the moment is the lack of food. And this is made harder still because we know that there would be enough, if people would stop buying so much for their own households.
But at the same time, a national crisis such as this really does bring out the best too. After putting out on social media appeals for the food we urgently need, we saw family after family, business after business, donating at the end of last week, even children off school bringing in a couple of tins for us. One guy brought a whole box of ‘Who Gives A Crap?’ loo roll, while TK Maxx gave us their perishable goods. Schools that were collecting for us in the run up to Easter sent what they have gathered so far. At a time when we could be weighed down with stress and concern about the needs around us, this generosity is buoying our spirits and spurring us on.
We need to fix our eyes on the things that give us hope, on the kindness and generosity.
All around us is anxiety and worry. The images of crowds outside supermarkets at 7am breed panic. So the small acts of kindness serve as an important antidote to fear. They fill us with hope. And that is going to be increasingly vital over the coming weeks.
At the national charity Jubilee+, where I work, we’ve been concerned about this for months. Last November we published a booklet called A Deepening Crisis? because, while some have heralded the end of austerity and brighter times ahead, we have had a strong sense through our work with churches across the country that things might be about to get harder for those trapped in poverty.
Of course, none of us could have foreseen what is now happening. But what now looks inevitable for the UK is that some who have never known hardship – like the woman with the glistening media career – will be plunged into it, while those who were already in poverty will be pushed deeper into it and trapped there.
That’s why we need to fix our eyes on the things that give us hope, on the kindness and generosity that resists the urge to stockpile. On the compassion that causes us to reach out and help each other where we can. Churches like mine may have had to close their doors for Sunday services, but we are keeping our projects that serve the most vulnerable open, and we will continue to do so.
Coronavirus will pass. The commitment of churches across the country to show compassion to those swept into poverty will not.
Natalie Williams is as head of communications and policy at Jubilee+. Follow her on Twitter at @natwillnatter
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