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Coronavirus (COVID-19): impact on communities and priorities for recovery - research

Evidence from consultation based research about changes to organisations’ work during the pandemic and the impact of the pandemic on a range of themes including economic security, social interactions and loneliness, community cohesion, safety, trust in government, and skills, learning and development.

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2. What has been the impact of the virus and control measures on the people and communities these organisations work with?

Alongside the direct and immediate health harms from coronavirus, the pandemic has caused negative impacts in communities, increased levels of poverty and financial pressure, social isolation, and limited access to education and employment.[4]

In most cases the organisations in this research provide help and support to people who may be in difficult circumstances, and the information that organisations have access to comes from the relationships and contact they have as they perform these functions. Again, this means that although these insights are useful, they are taken from a specific organisational context and on their own do not provide a full insight into the direct lived experiences of people and communities through the pandemic.

This section uses six dimensions of societal harm[5] to frame these impacts:

  • Economic security and welfare
  • Loneliness, anxiety and fear of social interaction
  • Social capital and community cohesion
  • Social contract, trust in government
  • Safety and security
  • Skills, learning and development

2.1 - Economic security and welfare

The most prominent theme in responses was the negative impact of the pandemic on the finances of people and communities. Concerns about employment were noted as being priorities for the short, medium and long term.

Official statistics and public attitudes polling has shown the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on employment.[6] Participants involved in this consultation-based research noted the specific impact on: people's incomes, freelance workers, and on young people's education, training and future employment prospects.

Some participants highlighted the particular impact on certain groups, given the disproportionate number of women, young people, and minority ethnic groups in precarious employment, including the gig economy and self-employment, and unpaid caring roles.

"We are hearing of families, many of whom are working families, who were just managing to get by before the pandemic. Job losses or the reduction in income through being furloughed has meant families are now struggling to buy food, pay bills and provide clothes for their children. Some families have voiced that they do not know how they are expected to get by when they have to wait five weeks to access Universal Credit. Others have spoken of difficulties accessing foodbanks, reporting that their local foodbanks are experiencing drops in donations and are therefore having to limit how often families can access them."
Charity for children and young people

Participants highlighted concerns about the availability and affordability of food. They noted, for example, the reliance of people with reduced incomes on food banks, the needs of older and disabled people to get supermarket deliveries or to go shopping themselves and the links to travel. They also noted the inability of many people to be able to visit affordable shops because of limited public transport, food vouchers being redeemable only at supermarkets far away, and children who would normally receive food at school and through community groups.

Responding to pressures on food availability and affordability was one of the main prompts for organisations to engage in new partnerships with other organisations during the pandemic, and became a new focus for many organisations.

As well as the financial impact in relation to food, participants also recognised the household budget pressures on energy and digital access bills as people spend more time at home, and as their employment, education, and social connections needs increasingly depend on their household internet and mobile services.

The research also highlighted the indirect consequences of the pandemic pressures on community sector organisations' ability to provide support. Some participants expressed concern about their organisation's continued viability as they try to manage increased demand caused by the pandemic, with reduced opportunities for fundraising, and with fewer staff than usual where people have been furloughed through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

In terms of priorities for the future, organisations recommended a greater general focus on developing an inclusive social economy that more explicitly focuses on wellbeing, gender-equality in economic planning, a focus on tackling existing inequalities in recovery, a recognition on the interconnectedness of the environment and economy, and more adequate systems for social security, wages and contracts.

2.2 - Loneliness, anxiety and fear of social interaction

The impact of the pandemic on mental health was a clear priority. Nearly all participants noted that the pandemic had negatively impacted physical and mental health. This was the most commonly reported short, medium and long term priority for the people and communities who participants work with.

There are related concerns regarding the wide range of other pressures including housing, financial problems and addiction. This is also a focus for organisations who are supporting people within different settings and the research picked up concerns about the mental health of older people, young people, disabled people, refugees and asylum seekers, and those with existing health conditions. Participants also noted that feelings of anxiety were compounded for particular groups, for example: people with learning disabilities or limited English proficiency finding it difficult to understand public health messaging; people with pre-existing health conditions; and those unable to access regular care and support.

A small number of participants noted that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of work to acknowledge and support mental health, specifically through more flexible working arrangements, and opportunities for physical activity outdoors.

Loneliness and isolation were prominent themes in responses where organisations were asked about the impact on the people they work with. This was often also where people were unable to use digital substitutes for their usual interpersonal interactions, for example people living in residential care and who have restricted access to technology, older people without digital literacy, households without few or no digital devices, homeless people, and people with family members in prison.

"This pandemic has shone a light on loneliness and isolation like never before, with huge numbers of people experiencing it to a greater or lesser degree, we need to capture this awareness and also that of all those who have volunteered during the pandemic for the first time. We need to harness this awareness, protect and develop community based services, properly support and resource volunteering and tackle societies inequalities if we are to move forward to a better more equal society."
Befriending charity

As well as the negative impacts, there was also evidence reported of some people who may have felt more connected than usual through the pandemic, because of increased formal and informal food and medication deliveries, and more contact with their neighbours.

"We have noted that clients that we had been working with prior to the lockdown restrictions are coping better than we would have anticipated. We believe that this is due to the fact that clients are focusing on their immediate basic needs (food, warmth, shelter) and generally getting by and the fact that loneliness and isolation, for example, is the new 'norm'. It is of note that people do not feel 'different' from others in relation to stress and anxiety levels but rather perceive that everyone is stressed and anxious."
Mental health charity

2.3 - Social capital and community cohesion

Although quantitative research shows evidence of higher levels of loneliness and isolation through the pandemic,[7] organisations also provided examples of positive impacts on neighbourhood support and relationships.

A number of participants noted that they had seen evidence of communities or neighbourhoods coming together, and of the common and shared experience of the coronavirus pandemic being a catalyst for neighbourhood connection. This included things like people supporting their neighbours by shopping for food or collecting prescriptions, increased donations to food banks, people waving to their neighbours on Thursday evenings during the 'clap for carers' events, and isolated older people feeling more connected to others.

Some organisations expressed a desire to consider further how to develop and continue the local and neighbourhood goodwill and support beyond the immediate collective response to the coronavirus pandemic. A couple of organisations highlighted the importance of local democracy and participation, and the need to include a range of voices in decision making, and the devolution of power to local communities to be in control of financial and policy decisions to enable communities to recover.

"A consistent theme has been the impressive performance of under-resourced community organisations, acting effectively and in collaboration to meet immediate challenges."
Development organisation

Social infrastructure was the main focus in some of the responses. Organisations noted the risk of losing meeting places due to the closure of community centres and schools, which also affected the availability of respite care for families of disabled children and support with early learning and childcare.

2.4 - Safety and security

Crime data for the period of the pandemic suggest an uncertain picture. Levels of recorded crime were lower than usual, but Police Scotland noted a lack of information about some of the effects of physical distancing on people's safety.[8] [9] Measures of safety in polling surveys suggested that perceptions of safety within neighbourhoods during this period were 7-8 percentage points lower than the levels typically recorded in the Scottish Household Survey.[10]

Participants in the current research also provided examples of information they have about domestic abuse and household tensions. Some responses commented on the relationship tensions amongst households they had observed, either as a result of, or amplified by, the lockdown restrictions. This also was relevant to the challenges of maintaining and supporting relationships with a family member who is in prison.

A number of participants noted either actual or expected increased incidences of domestic abuse and their concerns about this because of the difficulties involved in signposting to support services for victims of domestic abuse, the slowing down or stopping of support measures impacting safety and mental health and a predicted increase of referrals relating to domestic abuse and child neglect as lockdown measures are adjusted.

Some organisations noted specific challenges of supporting vulnerable children and young people. For example, a legal charity highlighted that lack of access to services may pose additional risk for children at risk of abuse.

Some organisations highlighted specific issues affecting older people, for example: difficulty accessing food and prescriptions; maintaining physical strength to prevent falls in the home; and staying in touch with friends and family.

"Due to movement restrictions and as a result of limitations in being able to access support services, we have noticed a reduction in queries received related to child protection. We have concerns that many children who were/are at risk of abuse, neglect and/or exploitation may not be seen by professional, service providers and family members."
Children's charity

A number of organisations noted the importance of considering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on existing inequalities. Examples of groups who may be disproportionately affected include: those already experiencing financial difficulties; children and young people already behind in school and those facing digital exclusion; and people with existing mental health problems.

2.5 - Skills, learning and development

A number of organisations noted that some families were struggling to balance childcare, home learning, and work commitments. Related issues include pressure from schools to complete assignments and the unequal gender split in caring for children and supporting home learning. A few organisations also highlighted the impact on disabled children and young people and their families, in particular the reduction in respite care and additional support.

Some organisations noted the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the confidence and mental health of children and young people, and the disproportionate effects on children and young people who may be behind in school, or facing other related challenges.

Limited access to digital technology was noted as a specific barrier for children and young people in accessing education as well as continued interaction with friends and peers. Relatedly, a few organisations commented on the importance of communication with family members, with specific examples being given regarding the challenges associated with separated parents and having family members in prison.

On training and employment, a few organisations noted that young people will likely struggle to find adequate opportunities. Respondents highlighted the need for targeted employment and skills opportunities, as well as an appreciation and effort to avoid continuing existing inequalities in the labour market.

2.6 - Social contract, trust in government

This research did not specifically ask questions related to this dimension of social impact, however, some organisations reported that the pandemic has had an impact on confidence in government, with a similar number each reporting a positive and a negative impact.

One respondent organisation noted that their engagement with the Scottish Government had reduced during the pandemic and expressed concern about whether these relationships would return. Others commented that they, or others they knew of, had been unsuccessful in accessing emergency funding through the Wellbeing Fund and consequently their ability to provide services and support was impacted.

On a related note, some participants commented that the Wellbeing Fund had enabled them to continue or expand their work to, for example, provide food, toiletries and mobile phones.

A few participants commented directly on the work of, or their trust in, the Scottish Government. Examples of positive work included: commitment to collective decision-making and partnership working and sharing information clearly and regularly.

Contact

Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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