Could Covid-19 volunteers be part of a collective solution to the pingdemic?

By Guanlan Mao and Rotem Perach

The ongoing battle against Covid-19 has seen governments around the world require their citizens to follow various behavioural measures, such as self-isolation and physical distancing, in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Whilst adherence to such measures has been crucial to our society’s response, they have also come at great cost. The most recent demonstration of this has been the so-called “pingdemic”: a phrase describing the large numbers of people who have been “pinged”, or told to self-isolate, by the NHS Covid-19 App in recent weeks. Although most coverage of the pingdemic has focused on its economic consequences – workers unable to go into work, supermarkets struggling to stock shelves – this framing tends to elide the fundamental reason behind the pingdemic: extremely high rates of infection. Covid-19 has thus killed over 150,000 people in the UK alone. An approach which properly sought to contain a virus with such devastating consequences would be aimed at properly supporting adherence to public health measures such as mask-wearing, distancing, and self-isolation. Instead, the government has instated measures such as worker exemptions to self-isolation, placing the onus on individuals who have potentially been exposed to the virus to go into work and place others at risk.

The importance of supporting self-isolation becomes doubly important when we take into account just how demanding following such measures can be. Anyone who has self-isolated knows that it isn’t easy. Adherence to self-isolation for the full period required is less than 50%, and shopping for provisions is a key reason for breaking isolation. With over 600,000 people told to isolate in a single week, how can people in self-isolation be properly supported?

Our new review article looks at one potential part of the solution– Covid-19 volunteers. One of the most positive stories to emerge from the pandemic has been the remarkable and spontaneous surge in volunteering across the world. In the UK alone, the national NHS volunteer responders scheme was able to recruit over 750,000 people within four days. And whilst before 2019 you were unlikely to hear the term “mutual aid” outside of your local anarchist group, Covid-19 saw mutual aid groups – local volunteer-led initiatives formed without the help of official bodies – breakthrough into the mainstream, with over 4000 initiatives formed over the course of the pandemic. By providing the vital social support needed to quarantine safely, Covid-19 volunteers formed a crucial part of the UK’s pandemic response. Understanding such volunteering therefore informs our response to a situation like the pingdemic, and future pandemics where supported isolations are necessary.

One of our main findings was that Covid-19 volunteering encompassed an incredibly wide range of activities. Indeed, a recurring motif in our research was that of adaptation. Whilst delivery of essentials such as food and prescriptions dominated early efforts, there was an increasing shift towards activities aimed at addressing the wider impact of the pandemic, such as loneliness, unemployment and domestic abuse. This variation points out that the needs of self-isolating individuals go beyond simply delivery of food or prescriptions.

It goes without saying that effective delivery of Covid-19 support – whether practical, emotional, or informational – is not a simple matter. Our research found that volunteer groups faced many challenges including retention of volunteers, generation of demand, and being bogged down by red tape. However, our analysis also revealed several factors associated with successful support provision. For example, volunteering may be promoted by providing social rewards, nurturing relationships, and recognising contributions. On an organisational level, effective organisations balanced the need for both responsiveness and leadership by blending elements of decentralised, informal models with more hierarchical approaches: for example, through preserving channels for “core” members whilst avoiding formal administrative processes.

We also explored how authorities could best support such volunteers, both on a local and national level. If you’d like to read more about our findings, including the merits of a “facilitative” approach compared to a “micromanaged” or “indifferent” response from local authorities, or how the furlough scheme appears to have created a new demographic of volunteers, click here.

It is no exaggeration to say that Covid-19 volunteers have saved countless lives by enabling the vulnerable and at risk to follow the proper health guidance at a crucial juncture. However, our research highlights that such groups function best when they themselves receive the appropriate support: from local authorities, community organisations, and the national government. Their trials, tribulations and triumphs remind us all that a collective problem like Covid-19 requires a collective solution.

Funding Statement: This work was supported by the UK Research and Innovation/Economic and Social Research Council (grant reference number ES/V005383/1).

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