Almost three years since the Grenfell Tower fire, the coronavirus pandemic reminds us that in times of disaster, grassroots organisations are the ones on the frontline.
The chaos that ensued in north Kensington following the tragedy stemmed, in large part, from the uncoordinated response led by national charities that left gaps that could only be filled by community action.
Today, it is these communities that are struggling the most.
We must learn lessons from the Grenfell tragedy. It is vital that we listen to those communities who are worst affected, and we must ensure our responses don’t
exacerbate existing inequalities.
A report investigating the charity sector’s response to Grenfell, released in May 2018, was intended to right some of these wrongs and enable it to respond effectively to future disasters.
It advised civil society to appreciate local, secular and faith organisations, who have the ability to draw on their resources on the ground to act quickly and sensitively in line with the needs of communities they understand. It advised that disaster response systems be tailored to the vast socio-economic and cultural differences that exist across our communities; and that diverse communities be supported in a way that is sensitive to their varying needs.
Without a purposeful, intersectional aid response that centres on BAME communities, the Covid-19 outbreak will further entrench racial inequalities in our society.
So far, we have not seen these recommendations applied in the sector’s response to Covid-19. Charities hold a lot of power, and often have access to individuals and communities most impacted by the pandemic. BAME people are likely to be overrepresented among the groups who risk facing serious complications if they contract the virus, as well as suffering most severely from the economic consequences. This is, as our research into racial injustices in the Covid-19 response examines, due to a range of social and economic issues, as well as the intersection between poverty, race and health inequality.
Emergency funding worth £750m is now in the hands of some of the largest and most powerful civil society organisations. Without a purposeful, intersectional approach that centres on BAME communities, the Covid-19 outbreak will further entrench racial inequalities in our society.
The charity sector must remember its past mistakes and look to distribute this money in a way that supports the most “vulnerable” (as defined by public health guidelines). This means equitable distribution of this funding to small, BAME voluntary and community sector groups, as they are currently leading the sector’s frontline response.
This isn’t just about providing relief now, but about which organisations we want to preserve in a post Covid-19 society. We know the impact on BAME communities will be felt long after lockdown has ended, and we need to make sure they are supported through the instability to come.
It is easy in a crisis to revert to familiar ways of working, but in doing so we risk not only reinforcing existing structures of racial inequality, but also further embedding them.
As Grenfell showed us, traditional models and processes for distributing funds do not reach the groups and organisations that are most in need. Unless we act now, history will repeat itself, with grave and long-lasting consequences.
Ayesha Gardiner and Henna Shah are organisers at #CharitySoWhite, a committee of grassroots activists working in the charity sector.