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Value and values during a pandemic  

Tamsin Stirling reflects on what the outbreak has revealed about our society and sector

I am writing this on March 30; who knows how things will be going by the time this issue of WHQ is published?

In the last week, I have been anxious, scared, at times frenetically busy and at other times lethargic. I’ve eaten loads of biscuits, played too much solitaire and managed to read one book. Like everyone, I’m worried about family and friends.

An often written and spoken phrase in the last weeks is that the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. In many ways it has, but in others, it has simply made much more clear some of the long-standing features of our society such as inequality, poverty, just in time supply chains and hollowed out (and often denigrated) public services.

It has also really shone a light on what and who we value and why. Many workers now defined as key workers earn low incomes in professions that have been traditionally considered as requiring little skill. Care workers, folk working in food production and in shops, those who deal with our rubbish and deliver parcels, street cleaners, posties, bus and train drivers and many others are vital to the functioning of a society in lockdown. Occupations that can’t be carried out at home, occupations that carry risk because of contact with numbers of people, occupations that, at the time of writing, do not necessarily have access to even basic protective equipment so that people can stay safe.

The pandemic has certainly reinforced our interdependence; we all have to change our behaviour in order for the pandemic to be brought under control. Interdependence is one of the values identified in the work by the Frameworks Institute that examines how we can effectively frame the issue of homelessness to generate public support for what will actually work to end homelessness:

‘The value, as tested in FrameWorks’ research, draws attention to the ways in which we are all connected both socially and economically. The reminder of our intertwined economic fortune reinforces the idea that we are all members of the same society and addressing homelessness strengthens society as a whole.’[1]

It is our intertwined public health fortune that is at play now.

While this interdependence is really clear, the response to the pandemic to date has demonstrated very different values applied by organisations and their leaders. Some companies committed to paying staff not in work before the government furlough scheme was announced. Others laid people off, while others are requiring people to carry on going to work in conditions that do not in any way adhere to government guidelines on social distancing and self-isolation.

Some have totally changed what they are doing; the Mint is a great example, now making PPE medical visors, while a number of distilleries have shifted to making hand sanitiser.

And a local example of values based in community is our local Co-op store in Splott. After putting in place rules about how many people can go in the shop at any one time and how they queue outside to ensure social distancing, systems for rationing of certain items and ways of scanning and paying for shopping which involve people keeping a distance from each other, the manager of the store said that that he was ‘proud to serve this community’.

I am a board member/trustee of three organisations – Crisis, Cardiff Community Housing Association and the Bevan Foundation. Coronavirus has generated distinct challenges for each of them, but also the same immediate challenge – keeping people safe.

In the last two weeks, I have seen them totally change the way they work, shifting many people to home and remote working and changing ways of working for people providing frontline services. They have reprioritised their work and resources, put new policies in place and been part of lobbying government for effective policies and funding to be in place. An incredible amount of change has happened in a very short period of time because it had to.

Board and committee meetings have become virtual, business continuity plans activated, delegated authorities re-examined etc etc. My learning so far is that, as a trustee/board member in this context, the best thing you can do is to get out the way, keep out of the detail, be available to be consulted/act as a sounding board, respond swiftly when asked and provide support; saying thank-you and well done can mean a lot.

It is inevitable that the next weeks and months will test every individual and organisation. What values will come to the fore in our decision making as individuals and community members, board members/trustees and employees?

As so eloquently put by Dr Frances Ryan in her piece for The Guardian on March 24, ‘in the coming weeks, values, as well as the law, are going to be what helps us get through this’.  

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at tamsin.stirling@outlook.com and is on Twitter @TamsinStirling1  

[1] frameworksinstitute.org/assets/files/crisis_messagememo_2018_reframing_homelessness.pdf

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