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Coronavirus has triggered an outpouring of positive news stories about how lockdown makes us better neighbours. But my experience tells a different story. For 20 years I’ve lived on an estate that’s become increasingly gentrified. In the last five years, and pre-Covid, I’ve become accustomed to seeing 20 or 30 some-things scout it out on weekends, smiling when they notice the security gate, and flower beds, and a significant majority of white, middle class residents who look like them – and then move in.
Offering further appeal is our proximity to Broadway Market, just moments away, which though bordered by poverty, could pass as a pricey shopping area in middle England. Those who hang out there resemble the staff the expensive shops employ: white and posh – strange given East London is so diverse with especially high unemployment amongst BAME people.
For nine years through You Make It, I’ve brought people together from different classes, races and ages to help reverse the inequalities experienced by young, unemployed women here. Meanwhile, I’ve kept friendly with the changing faces of neighbours, chatting in the courtyard, initially inviting them to parties and not paying much attention when barely any would join gatherings of my diverse friends from across London and long time friends from the block.
Then coronavirus happened and revealed what a dangerous mix white fragility and privilege can be, combined with a reluctance to integrate into the wider community here. I’ve witnessed complete unwilling to engage with or alter social behaviours despite evidence that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the elderly, and BAME people – all groups that are represented on our estate – are more likely to die of it.
I’ve found getting to the shops precarious. On the way, expensively dressed people stride or jog towards me as though gearing up for full on collision. I’m used to this in these parts now, but remain shocked that behaviours aren’t moderated during a pandemic. I’m always the one to side step for social distance.
On a particularly warm day during the Covid peak, Broadway market was rammed, people boozed in groups, with overspill onto London Fields where there was a full on party atmosphere. Police looked on seemingly in awe as though amongst the stars. I’m certain if young black people were colonising the market or field, there wouldn’t have been passivity, rather anything to make them realise the curtailment of their freedom. In fact, police have been accused of racial profiling in lockdown searches.
A black man stopped his car to film the scene on his phone, pleading to an officer: “Why aren’t you doing anything?” I felt his pain. Every week one of my BAME friends would tell me another black or brown person they knew had died of Covid-related symptoms.
Back to my estate, that same weekend a young woman wrote on our Facebook group she enjoyed the Thursday NHS clapping and she’d love to get to know her neighbours with a social gathering. The likes and positive comments rose: what a great idea in the interests of “community,” one offered to make cinnamon buns. A neighbour who works for the NHS commented he was uncomfortable about it, along with two others and myself, but it went ahead, and from afternoon until evening people gathered in our shared courtyard, lying on blankets within inches of each other, drinking, listening to jazz.
Breaking point was last Saturday during a Stay In zoom tribute in honour of another black life taken from Covid, hip hop artist Ty. He wasn’t known to me personally, but was to several grieving friends. Meanwhile outside the flat of an NHS worker, a group partied. I confronted them, only one lived on the estate and grinned as I said people were dying and to show respect. His friends left reluctantly.
When I later questioned the escalation of selfish, non-socially distant gatherings on our Facebook group, I was accused of not being “kind”, of “shaming” by a resident who quoted me using the words “white” and “middle class” as evidence. In response to my fact-based emphasis on Covid-related BAME deaths, she suggested it was untrustworthy news.
The day after, an elderly neighbour and myself organised logistics for writing and hanging signs around the estate reminding of government social distancing rules. Someone ripped them down.
But it’s not all bad. I cook for an older couple a few times a week, other long time residents sew masks for NHS workers getting to and from work, my next door neighbour of 20 years shops for elders here. But the large influx of people, not just in my block but in the borough and wider, must learn that kindness, community and neighbourliness is about embracing the vulnerabilities of those around them, ensuring they do everything they can to make sure they too have a good quality of life and expectancy.
Asma Shah is Founder and CEO of You Make It, and Advisor on the GLA Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion Group