In Depth

Coronavirus: nine ways to help the most vulnerable

Volunteers are going above and beyond to help those in need

The UK government has stepped up its response to coronavirus, issuing new restrictions on movement that amount to a total lockdown for many people.

But officials aren’t the only ones working on plans to ease the pain of the virus. Volunteers across the world have stepped up efforts to make sure that the most vulnerable are getting the help they need in these unprecedented times.

Facebook group volunteers 

At least 2,700 volunteer groups have been set up with the aim of helping those who are in self-isolation because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Around a dozen volunteers in south London have set up an umbrella organisation, Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, to coordinate the groups. Co-founder Kelsey Mohamed, 28, said the response had been “overwhelming... it shows us what's possible when we prioritise simple compassion”.

She added: “People are self-organising with incredible efficiency, respect and creativity.”

The Guardian reports that government planners are preparing to ask some of the 2.5 million people who have signed up to community groups to help deliver emergency food aid within days.

“This is people stepping up to do what they can,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the umbrella organisation. “But this is not necessarily the answer. In terms of most food deliveries, this is not a replacement for an institutional response that is going to be needed.”

A list of participating Facebook volunteer groups can be found here, organised by geographical area.

Convince people to stay at home

Some volunteers have found older people are not willing to stay at home, despite government advice and instructions.

“The biggest challenge has been making the older members of the community know they are vulnerable and need extra assistance,” John Bownas, part of the Hastings and St Leonards volunteer group in East Sussex, told the Guardian. “British people don’t like to impose. [But] if help is offered, take it.”

Steve Nuttall had to work hard to convince his 80-year-old neighbour to stay at home and let him go shopping for him: “Convincing older people to stay at home and that they are in a vulnerable situation is how I see the next few weeks going. The government needs to do an awful lot more to help volunteer groups in terms of clear direction, resources and helping local support groups and to encourage people to help set up groups in their communities.”

Special hours for elderly shoppers

Several supermarket chains have arranged special hours for over-70s to come into stores ahead of normal opening times, so they can do their shopping in peace and minimise social contact.

Iceland, Co-op, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose have all introduced an hour at the start of some or all days of the week in which over-70s get priority.

Asda is among those allowing NHS workers into larger stores early, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8am to 9am.

Grocery shopping is one of the few activities that the government has ruled is a legitimate reason to leave the house.

For all shoppers, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said: “The very, very strong advice from the scientists, from the medics, is that people should not go buying more than they need.”

Small shops

Some small stores in the UK have been giving away essential to those in need to help them fight the virus.

A corner shop in Stenhousemuir, Scotland, gave away thousands of pounds worth of free supplies to those in need, including face-masks, antibacterial hand gel and cleaning wipes, reports The Independent.

Asiyah and Jawad Javed, who run the cornershop, said: “We are just trying to help people who can’t get out the house.”

Keeping in touch

One of the simplest ways to help the vulnerable is by keeping in touch via the phone or video call.

Age UK, the charity for older people, says that the choice of video call technology should be as “user-friendly as possible” for those unaccustomed to controlling the software.

“Something integrated like a video call app on a smartphone, tablet or a laptop with a built-in camera, for example will often be more straightforward,” Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, told the BBC.

Kate Bevan, editor of computing at Which?, the consumer magazine, says while specialist devices are best, the setting-up phase might be tricky without in-person help. In those cases, using software on an existing device is best.

“If your family member has a tablet or smartphone, you can also help them get set up with apps such as Skype, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, all of which do video calls,” Bevan says. “Apple users can also use FaceTime.”

If video calling isn’t possible for the people you want to keep in touch with, pick up the phone, or consider posting a letter on your daily walk.

Give to charities overseas

You can support charities that are helping people in developing countries, where coronavirus is likely to have a far deadlier impact than in countries with highly developed healthcare systems.

Ruth Davison, acting head of Comic Relief, said: “The work Comic Relief funds is more relevant than ever during these unprecedented times. Our charity remains committed to funding vital projects that help vulnerable people in the UK and internationally, as they adapt their services in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has predicted that the voluntary sector will face a £4.3bn drop in its income over the next 12 weeks alone, as the economy all but completely shuts down.

Give to charities at home

In the UK, charities such as Shelter, which gives housing advice and tackles homelessness, are in need of donations.

“Protecting the UK’s population of homeless people and rough sleepers by offering safe space to self-isolate means that up to 45,000 ‘self-contained accommodation spaces’ need to be urgently found,” says The Guardian.

But the government’s response has not come soon enough for some.

Matthew Downie, the director of policy and external affairs for charity Crisis, said: “The response has not been as fast as we needed it to be. The government’s own guidance on protecting yourself is just impossible if you are homeless. We’re now in a race against time because particularly in the night shelter population, where people are sleeping on floors next to each other in rows, that’s too dangerous.”

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Food banks

Many supermarkets offer places in-store where donations of food and supplies can be made. These are then taken and distributed to those in need through food-banks.

While you should not leave your home specifically to make a donation, you can combine a food bank donation with your grocery shopping without breaking any government rules.

“The latest government advice explains food banks can legally continue operating and buildings that host food banks can continue to open for those sessions, provided we follow social distancing rules, because [volunteers’] work qualifies you as key workers ‘caring for the vulnerable’,” says the Trussell Trust.

You can find your nearest food bank here.

Keep your distance

Staying away from the most vulnerable is the best way to guarantee their safety. Stay at home, do not visit the elderly or those who are immunocompromised unless absolutely essential.

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