Emily Burt: These are extraordinary times – and the charity sector is giving me hope

Amid the upheaval of coronavirus, the actions of not-for-profits, funders and community groups set an example to us all

Emily Burt
Emily Burt

When I took on the editor role at Third Sector, the last thing I expected was that the first big challenge of the job would be covering a pandemic. But here I am on the first day of enforced working from home, wrangling with Google conferencing so I can connect with my colleagues and wondering what it could mean for the upcoming issue(s) of the magazine.

Third Sector’s editorial team is lucky in so many ways, from the granular (the March/April issue has only just landed, so if ever there was a "good" time in our press cycle to go into enforced lockdown, this is it) to the broad: we are in stable, full-time work that can facilitate working from home and maintaining a reasonable degree of functionality. 

But we are also facing personal hurdles. Some of us have underlying conditions that make us high-risk to coronavirus; almost all of us have loved ones who are vulnerable. Yesterday I spent 45 minutes on the phone to my 86-year-old grandma attempting to convince her that attending her weekly exercise class would cause her more harm than good. 

My brother works in a London hospital and expects to be fast-tracked through intensive care unit training in response to the demand. My mum, a nurse who has worked in the NHS for more than 30 years, retired three days ago. She now expects to un-retire. 

The broader societal consequences of this virus are frankly too big to comprehend at this uncertain stage. What we do know is that people are dying, and more will die in the next few months. The postponement of events such as the London Marathon, though painfully necessary, will have crippling financial consequences for charities and fundraisers. The NHS – already stretched to breaking point after 10 years of austerity – faces a new and unprecedented challenge.

As such, the so-far inconsistent and cavalier approach of the government to this crisis is infuriating.

As countries around the world close their borders and their schools, and freeze rents and gas and electricity payments, our own government only yesterday realised that under its original approach, an estimated 250,000 people would die.

The Prime Minister has seen fit to "strongly advise" that bars, theatres and restaurants close rather than enforcing it, putting the onus on businesses, which will be unable to claim insurance and face potential financial collapse as a result. The recently stepped-up measures could last several months, official guidance says, but it offers little further clarity. 

Amid anxiety and uncertainty, I’m trying to find the bright sparks where I can. The brightest are the outpourings of humanity from around the world.

A video of Arnold Schwarznegger feeding his miniature pony Whisky and donkey Lulu at his kitchen table, while telling everyone to stay at home and "ignore the foreheads" is ridiculous and heartwarming in equal measure.

And I defy anyone not to feel at least a fraction uplifted by the videos of quarantined residents in Sicily or Siena singing from their windows and balconies to keep their spirits up.  

Most of all, I am in awe of the response from the voluntary and not-for-profit sector, which is facing unimaginable challenges as a result of coronavirus, but nonetheless surging to give support where the government is failing to do so. 

In the space of just a few days the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership coordinated so it can help reach and support the largest numbers of vulnerable people.

A host of funders signed a London Funders pledge to increase their flexibility, so that organisations can use funding to help cover sickness, purchase equipment or deliver services differently.

Arts Council England is refocusing grants to help compensate individual artists and freelancers for lost earnings – and heaven knows that compensation will be sorely needed now.

And Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK has been formed: it is a group of volunteers who assembled within days to support local community groups to provide mutual aid while the outbreak persists. At the time of writing, more than 400 community groups had signed up. 

It shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind us that the third sector is extraordinary, but the last week has put this front and centre of my mind.

Charities will probably face a fight for survival in the coming months, but that is not their chief concern right now. Instead they are thinking about what they can do for the most vulnerable people in our society.

There’s a lesson in that for us all. 

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