Coronavirus: Govanhill residents work together to fight Covid-19

The National, by Karin Goodwin
12th April 2020

IT’S Good Friday, the sun is shining and birds are singing full-throated songs of spring. Close your eyes and you could forget we are living in the midst of lockdown.

But in Glasgow’s Govanhill the normally packed-out ice-cream shop on Victoria Road is shut and there are no young people playing cricket in Queen’s Park. In Allison Street the shopkeepers re-stock fruit and veg wearing masks and the familiar hustle and bustle, the spill of people on to street corners, is gone.

With its network of tenement-lined streets, this is one of the most densely populated parts of Scotland, as well as one of the most diverse – about 40% of residents are from ethnic minorities.

Once it was home to Irish immigrants, then to those from Pakistan. Now it has a large Roma population. A recent survey by Govanhill Housing Association identified 52 nationalities and 32 languages spoken within just 13 tenement blocks.

Sitting at the heart of Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency, it’s accustomed to being used as a political football. Much is said about its high levels of child poverty, slum landlords, and complaints about fly-tipping. But many residents claim not enough is made of its strengths – its creativity, political activism and sense of community.

In the time of Covid-19 the highs and lows of living here cut both ways. As BBC’s Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis pointed out last week: “This disease is not a great leveller”. It will affect some far more than others.

There have been concerns that it is hitting ethnic minorities more. On Friday the head of the British Medical Association called on the Government to investigate if and why black, Asian and minority ethnic people are more vulnerable to coronavirus.

The first 10 doctors to die across the UK are from BAME backgrounds and fears have been raised that a disproportionate percentage of BAME people getting ill.

And then there is the class dimension.

Far more is being asked of the residents of Govanhill’s often over-crowded tenements, points out Fatima Uygun, director of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, than of those living in affluent areas with gardens, unlimited data bundles and jobs that can be done at home.

People have become seriously ill here, and there have already been deaths in recent weeks. Uygun has watched the ambulances and hearses that draw-up in these streets with a gnawing dread.

And yet, she insists, this area’s sense of community could also be a protecting force. Watching people pull together in a time of crisis has been a thing of beauty, she says, a time to remember that the essentials needed for that such as care and compromise – have been implicit in its DNA for generations.

“We have been used to living together, looking out for each other, agreeing on who will clean the close,” she says.

“This [pandemic] has helped us remember that natural instinct is still there. In Glasgow if someone is unwell in the close, everyone will know about it and take care of them.

‘‘You get that in working-class communities. I don’t think that happens in Bearsden [an affluent suburb of Glasgow].”

It’s also a community used to struggle. In 2001 Uygun was part of a groundswell of community members who occupied Govanhill Baths to save it for the neighbourhood. They fought on for many years after the police evicted them and finally bought the building under the Community Empowerment legislation. The baths are now in the midst of a £6 million refurbishment.

“We are still running our programmes online, we’re keeping on our freelance workers,” she says. “We are singing and planting seeds to grow when we come back together again. We’re documenting and creating zines, doing yoga and relaxation.”

At least one online activity is running every day she says, listing off choirs and exercise sessions amongst others. The pottery class received a home delivery of clay to use in lock down and The Deep End, which usually runs as artist studios, has been taken over by Govanhill’s new mutual aid organisation.

YOUNG participants from the Baths’ youth group haven’t been forgotten, with worker Angela Christie delivering care packages and activity packs complete with pens and pencils, paper, sticky tape and glue.

On Friday she picked up 40 Easter Eggs from a food bank for delivery and has got funding for fruit and veg vouchers to post.

She is doing three or four Zoom calls a week with 10-12 groups of young people, missing pals and school and feeling down about staying in. “And they have been asking if we can do more next week,” she says. They’ve been working on stories and comics and quizzes in-between times, activities they can look forward to sharing when they come together. Christie has made TikTok videos to encourage them to decorate their windows with the art materials she has provided.

“I am just trying to keep their spirits up,” she says. “It’s weird times, so anything I can help to make it easier, I’m all for. I have been actively involved with my community since I was a young one myself, and I know how important it is.

“I feel these times will bring the community closer, and when we are out the other end, it will continue to grow, and people will be more involved, as a result of people stepping up and helping each other.”

Other organisations are also trying their best to support young people. The Big Noise orchestras run by Sistema Scotland are starting back up on online, offering one-to-one classes and videos for all their young musicians to take part in, figuring out how to ensure they are all online (most are) and have access to affordable data.

New projects include Govanhill Window Jams and plans for local language swap with fresh ideas emerging day-by-day.

Yet Govanhill Community Development Trust worker Sorana Goga is concerned. Most of those she works with are Romanian and some struggle with English, which makes it hard for them to understand what is really going on.

“Misinformation throughout the whole of the UK population has been rife, especially as there are so many sources telling us different things,” says Goga. “But that is an even bigger issue for people who don’t speak English and can’t follow the daily briefings and so on. For a while, for example, there was a rumour here that you could catch coronavirus from water so everyone was spending what little money they had on bottled water.”

The development trust team – which includes three Romanian and several Slovakian speakers – decided they needed to act. “We know a lot of people were on Facebook so we set up work profiles and started to put the word out there,” she explains.

“I started waking up every morning to more than 100 friend requests. So far I have 1080 friends in just 2.5 weeks.” It means she can now contact people for free through video calls and provide one-to-one support.

“People can see that I am calm and that helps them to feel calm too,” she says. “We’ve also started to make videos explaining social distancing and quarantine. We’ve explained about the mutual aid group and what

powers the police now have.”

She and colleagues have also been advising people not to travel back to Romania even though circumstances are so tough – the majority have lost their jobs, benefits are far from straight-forward, the schools are closed.

Goga worries if they go now there could be little for them to return to and if they haven’t yet applied for settled status it may not even be possible.

The community work she and others have done here over the last four years pays off at time like this. She says: “People trust us, and they are listening.”

But they are up against difficult circumstances. In the last week there have been three deaths due to coronavirus in the Roma community. “These men were not over 60 but they had underlying health conditions like asthma or diabetes and those are common in our community,” she says. “Now people here are super scared.

“It makes it feel like this community is really on the front line. It’s difficult to exaggerate how much fear and anxiety there is here. So the fact that we can get people’s attention and help them through this is so important.”

USMA Ashraf, who managed the Swap Market project on Victoria Road until it closed its doors last month, is also concerned about the impact of lockdown on people’s wellbeing.

At the Swap Market – “an exchange space for skills, knowledge and goods” instigated on the area’s main street by the People’s Bank of Govanhill community interest company last year – she saw how important having somewhere to drop in for a chat was to many people here. It is currently running a crowdfunder to find new ways to continue its work.

“The Swap Market saw people from all walks of life,” she says. “People would come in and give us news about their life, or just as somewhere to get out of the house and have a cup of tea.

“There were strangers there who could connect with each other. Now my worry is for people’s mental health, especially if they are living by themselves.

“The older members don’t all use the internet for example, so they might not know about the various services that might be out there. I’d like to think that the neighbours in this community will be chapping on doors or sending a text message. But if someone has depression or anxiety they might even not want to get out and I worry.”

And yet, through all of this bleakness, some can see glints of light at the end of the tunnel.

Artist Ailie Rutherford, who founded the Swap Market, is also concerned about the effects this might have on the community. But she also hopes perhaps these terrible times are forcing a re-evaluation.

Next week she’ll be co-hosing an online drawing workshop for the Swap Market with poet Raman Mundair which invites participants to imagine a post-capitalist future – if the economy as we know it is under-threat what might one that works better for this community look like?

“There’s a lot of conversation about mutual care and community just now,” she says. “That’s the kind of thing that the People’s Bank of Govanhill and the Swap Market has been talking about for a while now. Maybe now we can start to imagine a different way of thinking, a different way of being. Maybe that’s one way something more positive can grow from all this.”