By Oisin Hayden Burrell
I’ve found myself stuck in the suburban town of Paraparaumu, in New Zealand. This part of the Kapiti coast sits just north of Wellington, the country’s capital city (in the south of the North Island). It is west-facing, so the scenic beachfront often bears witness to beautiful sunsets, and on a clear day you can see the most northerly parts of the South Island; it’s quite the idyllic place. However, in times like these you long for the comfort of home, with everyone feeling at least a little anxious about current affairs. Admittedly I am in a hugely privileged position in comparison to others stranded across the globe in this bizarre time, as I have my family to stay with, but that doesn’t mean to say I can’t help feeling a little helpless and homesick. However, being so far away has meant that I’ve been able to view how the British government and the Stroud district have responded to Covid-19 from an outside perspective.
As critical as I am of my little corner of the Cotswolds in the UK’s southwest, being away from it for several months has given me the chance to really miss it. There is a dense, almost indiscernible understanding between a lot of Stroudies, and one of the key factors in this is undoubtedly the town’s strong community atmosphere. For someone watching from the other side of the world, this strength and compassion has been hugely visible; it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the Stroud community has responded better to this crisis than the British government.
One thing I have greatly appreciated while I’ve been living in New Zealand is experiencing life under a left-wing government. Although it perhaps isn’t quite as radical as I would like it to be, it’s great to see The Labour Party in power, especially after a decade of Conservative rule back in the UK. The data shows clearly that Jacinda Arden’s swift action on Covid-19 has been hugely effective and quite literally saved lives, having been met with global praise, even the National Party, the New Zealand opposition has offered little criticism of their government’s response.
I understand that this is a time when the spirit of national unity is more important than ever; however, that should not shield the UK’s own government from scrutiny, particularly when it would appear they have failed to mitigate the impact of Coronavirus, with daily death tolls close to the thousands for the last week or more. With the extra weeks of notice the UK had compared to other countries like Italy who were already feeling the brunt of the pandemic, you would have expected the government to bring in protective measures sooner, as happened here in NZ. It was shocking to see the UK initially planning to develop some sort of herd immunity without the hint of a vaccine, particularly given how under-funded and poorly resourced the NHS has been. They were completely unprepared for the severity of the pandemic, and this complacency has doubtless cost lives that could have been saved.
Even if the government was quick to distance itself from the Cummings-approved herd immunity approach, their handling of the crisis demonstrates clear incompetence in protecting NHS workers and providing them with suitable PPE. The government here in New Zealand closed the border to any non-nationals when there were less than ten confirmed cases, meaning there has been no shortages of PPE. We are now in full lockdown for four weeks, and day-to-day increases in cases are low. It took over 250 confirmed cases for the UK government to begin attempting any mitigation, and many would argue that the closing of schools and non-essential businesses took place weeks too late. However, with lockdown now in full swing, things are looking a little more positive for Britain.
Despite the national picture, it appears to me as though the community response in Stroud has been brilliant. Long before the government had taken serious action, groups like Stroud Coronavirus Community Response (who we have previously interviewed) established a network in order to help residents deal with the pandemic as best as possible. It appears to be a great mechanism for local residents to seek help in relation to the virus, and it has been a perfect platform for individuals and local businesses to express the ways in which they can help the community. A perfect example of how the SCC has been used is the offer of digital skills and support for those who need it, which can be a lifeline for many elderly or vulnerable people; particularly if they need assistance with tasks like shopping or would like to know how to stay in touch with friends and family members during isolation. Local government has also played a vital role during this crisis – the Labour-led coalition district council made sure key jobs, such as waste disposal, had the resources to continue operation despite new social distancing rules, and set up continuity plans for council workers. They are also responsible for administering some of the government policies for supporting businesses and individuals during a time of national crisis.
Brilliant work is being done by smaller communities within our Five Valleys; some people in the Stroud area have been handing out cards containing their contact information, saying they would like to lend help and support to the vulnerable where possible. Running parallel to this is work being done by the Rodborough Mutual Aid Network, which is helping to mobilise the parish and helping people to help themselves. Local businesses in Stroud are also playing a vital part in the community response to the pandemic. The closure of the town’s many pubs hasn’t stopped their landlords and proprietors from adapting how they operate; the Crown and Sceptre has transformed into a village shop, selling fresh bread and other local produce. Access Bike has started offering free bikes to key workers, and local volunteers with access to 3D printers have started making equipment to provide to care workers and the NHS. It is scandalous that the government has been so poor in providing PPE, but it is really admirable to see the Stroud people stepping up.
Despite being in a country where the government response to Covid-19 seems to be proportional to the threat it represents, it still isn’t home. So being able to observe (from an extreme distance) the positive response from the Stroud community has been very reassuring.