Lockdown in London: mutual aid, music and Zoom parties

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Jemima Gibbons, social media consultant

I live in inner London but the area I live in is quite village-y. Housing on our street and the streets around is low-density – mostly terraced – and there’s already a good level of connectivity and networks of existing relationships overlying and intertwining with each other. My mum was born here and my dad in the next borough. During lockdown I added up my cousins and realised I had around 40 (of different sorts) living nearby. A lot of them moved out of London temporarily during Covid, but one in particular I’ve seen more of during lockdown.

Our borough has a population of 185,000 and is a typical city community – younger and more diverse than the UK average. Only 10 per cent of residents are over 65. Around 12 per cent have a long term limiting illness and 30 per cent of live alone.

The main challenge for our community was getting food and medicine to residents like these who were without help and couldn’t leave the house because they were elderly or more at risk. As lockdown progressed, we had more leaflets through our door asking for donations for local food-banks. A lot of people I know were furloughed. Some have now been made redundant, or are anxious about redundancy. Although most businesses that closed during the tightest part of lockdown have re-opened, a few shops and restaurants remain shuttered up. Some look like they’ve been completely abandoned.

How people are responding

The UK started to lock down on 16 March. The first thing that happened was local residents getting together to set up mutual aid groups on Facebook. Soon there were hundreds of groups across the UK, using Facebook for awareness-raising and recruitment, and WhatsApp to manage requests.

I joined two Facebook mutual aid groups – one for London and one for my borough. The borough Facebook group was run by a small group of volunteers and local councillors. They set up dedicated WhatsApp groups for each ward. I’m still on the WhatsApp group for my local ward. There were tens of notifications a day in March and April, but hardly any now, especially since the group was recently hacked. Now only admins are allowed to post.

A typical message that was later identified as misinformation that was shared in April on my WhatsApp

The second thing I noticed was an uptick in the sharing of conspiracy theories and misinformation on WhatsApp and Facebook. Especially from friends and family who were usually not very active on social media.

Finally, local business Instagram accounts provided an instant way to see which shops, pubs and restaurants were remaining open through lockdown. It was important to know where to get food and other supplies, especially at the height of panic buying in late March and April when supermarkets had some empty shelves and many online delivery services had completely seized up.

But these notifications also gave an opportunity to support small businesses at a time when we were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of our local communities. One of my local pubs turned into a farm shop – somewhere to buy popular stockpiled products like eggs and loo roll! Another local café cooked supper and delivered one portion to my 82 year old mum then the rest to us at home, so we could share the same meal together over Zoom. The same cafe would post daily videos and the occasional stunt to keep customers engaged and amused.

Aspects of my experience

The social and emotional fallout of the pandemic seems to have left all of us yearning for human contact. Hugs, chats, family, friends and neighbours have become super-important. My worldview has shrunk from global to the square mile (or so) outside my window.

While my instinct has been to retreat from the online world as much as possible, and focus on the people closest to me, digital technologies have been crucial to stay connected with everyone else, and to provide escapism. In terms of digital, these are the things that have been most important:

  1. News from Twitter and podcasts: I scroll through Twitter every day and listen to Remainiacs, The Bunker and The Media Show. I’m an optimist, so seeing the groundswell of support for #blacklivesmatter has been a positive thing, though the events that triggered it were horrific. I know the news is generally bad, but I feel more panicked if I don’t know what’s happening. Most – not all – the people I follow are liberal/ left of centre so while I’m not completely in my bubble, there’s a protective layer there – maybe call it bubble wrap?  I’m glad that the online debate here hasn’t yet become as polarised and aggressive as it seems to have done in the US.
  2. Zoom parties to keep in touch. Early on, a friend’s husband arranged a 40th birthday for her. With different rooms and live DJs, it was a great, positive experience.  One of the DJs has been running a Club Lockdown session every Saturday night which at least one of my friends regularly went to. We had a virtual sweepstake for the Grand National, and a few other online meetups, including Friday night suppers with my mum. Zoom calls with family or friends have been a nice way to feel connected and lift everyone’s mood. But they’ve been once or twice a week at most. I know a lot of people suffered Zoom fatigue after using it for work, but I’ve only been using it socially, so it hasn’t felt like overload.
  3. Music on 6 Music, Spotify and Twitch. Lauren Laverne, Gilles Peterson and Craig Charles on BBC 6Music were my go-to lockdown shows. Lauren Laverne had the perfect mix of empathy and upbeat music. She cheered me up every single day. I’ve always loved Gilles Peterson – his lockdown vibe was spot on for Saturday afternoons. Craig Charles’ Funk and Soul show is the best early evening Saturday show to have a drink and cook supper to when you’re stuck indoors. He introduced me to XRay Ted, who I liked so much I registered for a Twitch account. Something I never thought I’d need to do!

Most people I know experienced a new aspect to life during lockdown. Digital technologies  became increasingly important but, conversely, so did the natural world. Being outside, hearing birdsong, breathing less polluted air and taking time to enjoy parks and open spaces – these were all simple pleasures that people reported experiencing, time and time again, on social media. Of course there’s an irony to this! But the two seemed to work in tandem. Through Twitter, podcasts, Zoom and live broadcasts I was able to learn how others were feeling and experiencing the lockdown, hear their everyday thoughts and anxieties and find out generally how people were coping with the virus.

It’s been important to have these conversations, at grassroots level, at a time when our political leadership appears to be floundering. Every day, there’s a government announcement, and then there’s the follow-up analysis on Twitter. Through my social channels, I’ve felt both in touch and reassured. There’s been a sense of solidarity. I’ve realised that my reality, and my rollercoster of emotions (anger, grief, despair mixed with joy and gratitude) is not dissimilar to that of others. Even though I can’t see my friends and extended family physically, I can check in on them every day. And get an overview of what’s really happening on the ground. This is incredibly helpful and reassuring at a time when Covid, Brexit and climate change continue to rock and re-shape our world.

 

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