Supporting and co-producing with communities during COVID-19

Our ‘Community Leadership for Newham Residents’ course funded by The National Lottery Community Fund,  provides a space for local people with an interest in volunteering and community projects to come together, network and learn about community development. Since it began in September 2019, we’ve had over 100 residents join us at both online and face to face workshops. Read our recent blogs on reaching this milestone and delivering the programme online during COVID-19.

Sign with together written on it

A key part of the programme is co-production and ensuring that our sessions meet the needs and interests of people in Newham. Throughout 2020, we’ve worked with participants of the programme to develop a series of videos sharing their experiences and expertise on subjects such as parenting and resilience, digital inclusion and successful fundraising. This has been an important part of moving towards a course which is co-produced and breaking down perceptions of barriers or divides between academic teaching and practical, everyday lived experiences.

One of the key worries for many of the community groups we work with this year has been funding existing or new projects. In many ways and for many people, 2020 was an exceedingly difficult year and lots of groups have faced challenges keeping their services going.

On the 14 December 2020, following participants requests for more information about funds, grants and raising money we bought together a panel of experts from a variety of community organisations to run a special event for our Community Leadership participants on Fundraising and Funding Applications.

David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography opened the workshop by giving an overview of the current funding landscape and highlighting the many COVID-19 recovery funds available for community, charitable and faith organisations. It was great to also be joined by Emma Edgell from the Heritage Lottery Foundation, Caroline Rouse from Compost Community Interest Company and Darragh Gray from Bonny Downs Community Association and CHIPS.

The conversation was wide-ranging, from digital fundraising to writing a good funding application, and expanding your network of donors. Participants really appreciated having a space to ask direct questions to funders and experienced fundraisers, especially those who had recently set up new organisations or initiaves to meet local needs during the pandemic, such as the Newham Solidarity Fund.

We’re looking forward to more Community Leadership events this year. The value that creating spaces for conversations, networking and sharing knowledge, especially at this time can’t be underestimated. As one of our participants emailed me saying following the event, ‘Birkbeck rocks’ and we hope to keep rocking it by offering support and spaces for learning in Newham throughout 2021.

 

 

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What has the Covid crisis taught us about happiness?

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we define our happiness. In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, discusses how the crisis has changed society and definitions of happiness. 

Cup of coffee with smiley face

Given what we experienced in 2020 (and on into 2021), it might seem inappropriate to consider a pandemic and happiness as having much to do with one another. And in many ways, levels of happiness in the UK followed the bad news. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has been measuring the nation’s happiness for almost a decade now and it has barely shifted over that time. Austerity, Brexit turmoil —none of these made a dent, until March when the first national lockdown was announced. Then, life satisfaction and everyday mood plummeted while anxiety rocketed. But by summer, with the easing of restrictions, these happiness indicators had pretty much returned to pre-Covid levels.

This resilience may also be testament to a key phenomenon identified by happiness researchers — the extraordinary ability of people to adapt to changes in circumstances and, after the initial shock, to shift their expectations to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. This ‘adaptation’ principle explains why chasing riches produce what economists call ‘low marginal gains’ in happiness terms: you get used to your new-found wealth quite quickly and need to keep accumulating to maintain the same level of wellbeing (yes, just like addiction). New stimuli, both positive and negative, will make quite short-term, dramatic differences to wellbeing; before long, most people revert back to their normal happiness levels. So it was with lockdown. People adapted, found alternative ways to pass the time and got on with things.

But lockdown wasn’t merely tolerated. There were aspects of it people really rather liked. A clue is in the fourth indictor the ONS uses to gauge happiness, often termed the ‘eudemonic’ measure– reflecting a tradition associated with Aristotle that happiness is more than simply feeling good but is connected to the meaningful pursuits and good relationships of our lives – that asks people whether they feel their life is worthwhile. Unlike levels of anxiety, mood and life satisfaction, this measure remained relatively stable throughout 2020. Sure, some of what we find worthwhile (an active social and cultural life for example), took a hit, But the enforced hiatus from normal life that we never expected to inhabit –many dreamt of escaping the rat race; few thought the race itself would stop –has, for some at least, led to realisations and re-evaluations about the way they live.

Because by June, the ONS was reporting that almost half of us had identified some positive benefits of lockdown. One was work-related: not having to commute and spend long hours in the office (one UK wellbeing at work issue is that we put in more hours than most equivalent European nations but get less done!). Other benefits were spending more time with family (particularly quality time with children), appreciating a slower pace of life and connecting with the natural environment. People cooked more and did more exercise. During a guest lecture for UCEN Manchester students, one participant provided a neat formula for staying sane during lockdown: ‘run, plant, bake. Repeat’.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Most of the activities research studies have shown to be associated with happiness –loving relationships, achieving things, the arts, nature, doing things for others – were still possible during lockdown. Volunteering is another activity associated with happiness. ‘For me’, says Karl Wilding, CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), ‘Covid demonstrated that people want to be part of something bigger’. Not only did the one million plus people volunteering (only the tip of the philanthropic iceberg) constitute what the NCVO called ‘the largest peacetime mobilisation in British history’, there was a demonstrable uplift in what might be termed ‘community spirit’: more people felt that others were helping one another, they were more confident that others would help them if needed, and they were checking on neighbours far more than normal. In common adversity, solidarity. Maybe Nietzsche was right when he suggested that human societies ‘build their cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!’.

Of course, even precarious living is subject to the adaptation principle. When danger becomes the new normal, it is hard to maintain this collective spirit. In addition, social solidarity depends not just on feeling connected to a larger entity but also on the idea of shared experience across social groups. This has already faded. Recent reports from the Institute of Fiscal Studies lays out in painstaking detail the ways in which the crisis has both highlighted and deepened the profound social inequalities of UK life. Going forward, unemployment – a key predictor of unhappiness– looks set to rise steeply; a really alarming bit of data picked up from a recent ONS survey was that a third of the population, and half of all renters and parents, say they would not be able to afford an unexpected emergency payment of £850.

Happiness is inseparable from its social context. Every year the UN commissions a ‘World Happiness Report’ and one theme is persistent: the happiest countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on social support systems. Therefore, during the first lockdown, the policy environment became more happiness-friendly. Witness not just furlough but also getting ‘everyone in’ off the streets, suspending housing evictions and benefit sanctions. One Department for Work and Pensions worker told me that advisors ‘no longer felt like cops’ and could offer a more efficient service when clients felt they could speak openly about their problems without a punitive threat. Pre-Covid, a softening of social attitudes towards welfare recipients were being observed in reports like the British Social Attitudes Survey, and it is hard to imagine this reversing any time soon.

In 2020 the state was back, and it felt friendlier. But will this turn out to be just a glimpse of something more hopeful and not a decisive shift? This year has given some actual substance to some of the vague nostrums rolled out by politicians: the big society, the good society, all sectors working together towards a common goal. As vaccines are rolled out, we may not be living on the slopes of Vesuvius for much longer, but we should be mindful of what Covid has taught us about happiness, on a macro level about a more generous politics and on a personal level that the mantra of happiness- Carpe Diem! has two meanings. One, invoked by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and by T-shirts, mugs and online dating profiles, refers to the hot pursuit of happiness. But the aphorism has been re-purposed for our frenetic age. its original meaning pays tribute to the moderate happiness philosophy of Epicurus whose idea of seizing the day was not grabbing it by the scruff of its neck. Rather, cultivate simple joys and appreciate what we have instead of always seeking more. For, he wrote, ‘nothing is sufficient for he who finds sufficiency too little’.

Other ancient philosophies had good lockdowns. The Stoic creed of equanimity seems a bit dreary when there’s fun to be had. But in times of adversity, to face one’s fears, accept what we can’t control and still retain a sense of dignity never seemed so apposite. In a timely piece, writer Brigid Delaney recalled the Roman Philosopher Seneca, who, exiled by the state, cut off from his friends, wealth and influence, began to reconcile himself with the enforced simplicity and seclusion of his reduced circumstances, noting that ‘until we have begun to go without them, we fail to recognise how unnecessary things are’. Or, as one UCEN Manchester student put it: ‘the things we thought mattered, didn’t matter’.

 

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Lockdown loneliness

In this blog, Rob Martin a Learning Development Tutor at Birkbeck shares four ways to help manage loneliness during lockdown, and some resources available to Birkbeck students. 

A woman looking at her phone to depict loneliness

Some of us during lockdown are experiencing difficulties with loneliness. Many people are relying on the internet for all of their social and relational needs. This may not be the case for all students, and we will be covering other lockdown issues in further posts. Below are our top four top tips for managing your loneliness during lockdown.

1.    Quality connections, not quantity

Academic research into online communication suggests that its added distance and anonymity can provide more immediate rewards than face-to-face (FTF) communication. This might encourage us to text or chat with a greater number of people. But sometimes this can lead to frustrations, because, over thousands of years, we have evolved to relate to others through FTF communication.

In FTF we communicate through a variety of ‘channels’ – through the words we use, through the tone, pace, and volume of the speaker, body language and facial expressions, but also through silences. Silences are natural to us in FTF and allow for a moment to process what’s happening, but most online meetings contain few natural silences. Communicating through a more limited number of channels, with fewer opportunities to pause for thought, could explain why many of us feel more exhausted and could be less satisfied.

If you are noticing a sense of dissatisfaction in your relationships during lockdown, try to acknowledge that things are not quite as you would like them to be at the moment. Ask yourself “how can I take responsibility for better meeting my need for connection/company/entertainment?” Might it be better to distance yourself from certain relationships? During lockdown, it might feel tempting to try to meet our needs for connection through channels that do not serve us in the long run. Try to focus on developing higher quality connections with a smaller number of people. You can make a start on this by switching notifications off on your mobile device, even if just for 20 minutes.

2.    Give yourself permission to feel the way you feel

Give yourself permission to feel dissatisfied, if that is what you feel. Do you feel something else? That’s fine too. Some schools of thought believe that suffering comes from the sense of conflict we experience when we try to fight unpleasant emotions, rather than to understand it or simply be with it. It probably doesn’t feel good, but denying it or resisting it will likely feel worse. There are, of course, certain situations or relationships where an exit strategy is necessary, and this should not be overlooked.

Here, we are talking about particular emotions we might feel when alone – sadness, frustration, loneliness, anger. Acknowledging where we are now puts us in a better position to manage our responses and find more helpful ways of getting our needs met. If you want to learn more about managing difficult feelings, take a look at the range of free mental wellbeing apps via the NHS or contact Birkbeck’s Wellbeing Services.

3.    Use this time to develop a more compassionate relationship with yourself

The pace of life in 2020 has changed for most of us. Forgive yourself for feeling less than thrilled about it. Can you use this time to reflect on what it is that you want, or do not want, to invest your time in? Mindfulness meditation can be a good way of developing self-awareness and cultivating a sense of compassion for yourself and others. Try this list of mindfulness meditation apps to get started.

4.    Use this time to develop your personal interests

Is there something you have always wanted to read about, but haven’t? Are there hobbies you have been interested in, but never found the time or space to pursue? For example:

The Students’ Union still have active clubs and societies – perhaps there is one that matches your interests? Hopefully, you will gain a sense of satisfaction from taking up a new interest or two. It will also give you something different to talk about on Zoom.

We hope that loneliness is not affecting you adversely, but if you are finding things too much, contact Wellbeing Services to ask about counselling or contact the Samaritans. You may wish to consult your GP if you require help, or in an emergency, contact Emergency Services on 999 or visit A&E.

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Denials and ignorance in the time of a pandemic

Professor Renata Salecl, Professor of Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Law, explores how and why people react to COVID-19 with denial and ignorance.

Ignorance is often understood in a negative way, which is why we can easily accuse others of it while we rarely admit our ignorance. Most often, ignorance is understood not only as a lack of knowledge but primarily as a lack of the desire to know. However, psychoanalysts have observed that people might very well have a desire to know, but then do everything not to come close to the core of their suffering.

In politics, ignorance is often intentional or even strategic. At the start of the pandemic, many world leaders employed such deliberate strategies of ignorance. It was not so much that they did not know about the dangers of the novel coronavirus; they downplayed the pandemic for political and economic reasons.

In their private lives, people adopt their own types of denial. These denials are not so different from the types of denials that were studied in the 1980s by the Israeli psychologist Shlomo Breznitz, who questioned how people deal with potentially life-threatening health situations. Breznitz observed that many people who survived a heart attack did not think that they could suffer its repeat, even if they learned that others with a similar condition did. Denials helped people to feel confident in their wellbeing, and people often went from one form of denial to another. Altogether, Breznitz observed seven different kinds of denials among the patients he studied. One form of denial was that people felt that what happened to others cannot happen to them. Another involved a lack of urgency – when people experienced worsening of their health, they delayed seeking help. Still, another form of denial was a denial of vulnerability, when people felt that they were somehow protected from the illness because of their presumably healthy lifestyle. One of the forms of denial was the perception that illness is just luck, fate, or destiny. Moreover, while some people denied effects related to their condition or have invented an appeasing explanation for their anxiety provoked by their near-death experiences, others denied the information regarding their health. However, the most severe cases of denial included delusions, which meant that people created an explanation for their condition that was far away from reality.

With people who deny COVID-19, one can also observe how they often go through similar types of denials. Some people behave as if the novel coronavirus is of no personal relevance and that infections affect only other people. Even when already infected, some deny the urgency of the situation and do not seek medical treatment when their symptoms worsen. Many people who deny that the novel coronavirus can affect them, similarly to Breznitz’s patients, harbor illusions that they are somehow protected from getting infected because of their healthy lifestyle or even good genes. Some people take infection as merely a matter of luck or destiny. Overwhelmingly present are denials linked to people blocking unpleasant information or pushing aside their emotions related to the pandemic. Furthermore, with the continuation of the pandemic, psychiatrists are also observing delusional thinking. Some people are even developing particular COVID-19 related delusions.

Medicine often does not pay enough attention to people’s denial of illness as epidemiology says little about how ignorance and denial are played out in times of a pandemic. Now that so many countries are going through the second wave of the pandemic, many people are fatigued by it and are not willing to follow often erratic measures governments are proposing to limit the spread of the virus. While on the one hand, people need to deal with the conflicting messages about how to protect themselves and others from the infection, on the other hand, they have to deal with the emotions the pandemic is provoking. When dealing with something traumatic, anxiety-provoking or hard to grasp, people often embrace ignorance and denial, instead of knowledge and facts.

The pandemic has taught us the importance of acknowledging the unknown. As Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States said, “He who knows, knows how little he knows.” One cannot imagine that today’s world leaders would utter something like this. Although, as German politician and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach recently reminded us in The Guardian: “Uncertainty and doubt are not a disgrace for scientists or politicians at this time. What is disgraceful is excessive self-confidence, self-righteousness or dishonesty towards fellow human beings.”

Further Information

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Making a difference in the local community: learning from the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

With over thirty years’ experience working in his local authority, Eubert Malcolm brought a wealth of knowledge to the classroom. Having just been promoted to Assistant Director for Stronger and Safer Communities, he reflects on how the MBA has supported him to make a positive difference.

Picture of Eubert Malcolm

As local authority leaders go, Eubert Malcolm must be among the most personally invested in his community.

“Somebody said to me the other day that I’ve been in Haringey from boy to man,” he laughs, but with over thirty years’ experience in various roles in the local authority, this isn’t far from the truth. Eubert joined Haringey Council as an environmental health officer apprentice in 1988. From there, his role expanded into different fields as his skillset developed, encompassing housing, food safety and pollution.

“I made my way up the local authority and picked up Diplomas in Environmental Health and Management Studies along the way,” explains Eubert, “but I always felt that not having a first degree would hinder me at some point.”

The value of life experience

It was during the hunt for an undergraduate degree that Eubert stumbled across the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. The idea of studying part-time at the weekends was a particular draw, but was it really possible to do a Masters level programme without an undergraduate degree?

“I went along to the open evening without much hope,” says Eubert, “but I really liked the course leaders and they encouraged me to apply. I think I was the least qualified but most experienced of that first cohort, and the idea of a co-production and developing new types of leaders seemed perfect for my role. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing things differently

The collaboration between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics offers an innovative perspective on businesses and the problems they face. This, combined with the diverse international cohort on the MBA, gives students an opportunity to look at situations from a fresh angle. For Eubert, this proved invaluable when looking for ways to connect with the local community:

“When I first started the MBA, there was lots of gang activity and a spate of deaths in the community. I wanted to learn more about how violence was affecting young people in Haringey, so I commissioned a community group to speak to them and to people in prisons to figure out the drivers of criminality. Until you actually sit down with young people and hear from them, their teachers and their parents, you don’t really understand the challenges that they are facing. We need to engage with them and ensure that they are part of the solution.”

Eubert’s MBA dissertation was Haringey’s public health approach to tackling serious youth violence, a combination of academic research and an in-depth evidence base that came from his experience in the local authority, which informed the young people at risk strategy.

“At Haringey, we want to co-produce strategies with the community,” he explains. “Now, we’re incorporating business principles into our local authority point of view and using action learning techniques to think issues through from beginning to end, predicting the challenges we might need to address along the way. It’s an approach the managers I work with are now also starting to adopt.”

Leading in the pandemic

The rapid unfolding of events in the COVID-19 pandemic has made an agile approach essential:

“If you look at how much COVID-19 has cost local authorities,” says Eubert, “I don’t think we’re going to be fully recompensed for that. It has made us look at what opportunities could come out of it instead.

“For example, we couldn’t deliver a lot of our face to face services during the pandemic and many of them went online. We found that the young people we work with instantly took to that approach, which we hadn’t really considered before.”

Now Eubert, his team and the wider council are working on campaigns to bring the local community together to reduce the spread of COVID-19: “The approach we’re taking, trying to get right to the hearts and minds of people in the borough, is something I don’t think we would have attempted before. It just goes to show that with the right support and network in the workplace, you can be successful even through challenging times. I know that anything I set my mind to I will be able to achieve.”

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Working in the arts is a real job – don’t you dare ask us to retrain!

Arts workers are among the worst hit by the COVID-19 employment crisis. Professor Almuth McDowall asks why the government is so reluctant to offer support.

As a former classically trained dancer, I have been deeply moved by the plight of my colleagues working in the performing arts across theatre, music and dance.

Our pioneering research with PiPA in 2018 highlighted that over 54% of people working in this sector are self-employed, almost four times as many as in the UK general population. One in three don’t have a steady contract. Unlike in any other industry, it is common and expected that people finance the work which they love through other income. Teaching, cleaning, waitressing – you name it, they’ve done it. Taken together, this has always made for a toxic cocktail of precarious work. But never more toxic than now, as theatres are closed, orchestras can practice socially distanced at best (witness the recent ‘come back’ streaming of the Royal Opera House), and dancers now rather famously, thanks to social media posts aplenty, train in kitchens, bedrooms, on balconies or in the park.

Yet, the notion remains that work in the arts is somehow not real work, but a privilege that only the few can indulge. Recent controversy about the ‘Cyber Add’  illustrates the point. BA Acting student Ruby Hoggarth shares an alternative view about life in the arts during the pandemic:

“Graduating during a pandemic into an industry that is in complete crisis has been hard enough, but being nationally downgraded and humiliated by the very people who allegedly have our best interests at heart has been an embarrassment like no other. Not only has this media strategy grossly disregarded the importance of our industry, especially at a time of national crisis when people turn to the arts for healing, it has shown us that this government have little humanity and no ability to believe in the beauty of art.”

It’s a feeling BA Musical Theatre student Alex Conder can relate to:

“I chose to move away from home to study in the UK as a Musical Theatre student as I knew the spirit and quality of the art made in Great Britain is second to none. To then graduate and be told my career in the arts is viewed as a hobby or “not viable”—after the world has done nothing but devour art in the pandemic—is not only a slap in the face to our current artists, but also tarnishing an incredible historic legacy of fine art and creativity in this country.”

Along with hospitality, retail and manufacturing , the arts are the one of hardest hit sectors in the UK. Companies had to make judicious use of the furlough scheme which is now coming to an end. What next? Theatres will find it hard to put on productions at a profit with social distancing measures in place, as even the sell-out run of an adapted Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre demonstrated. We can’t very well take the roofs of all our theatres to aid ventilation, either!

So who’s responsibility is it? Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said that all workers need to adapt to the changing world of work and life in the wake of COVID-19. Well, those working in the performing arts have shown formidable resilience and adaption skills to date, our data shows that many juggled two if not three jobs to make ends meet and have a reasonable income. Tom Rogers, a soloist with Birmingham Royal Ballet has long branched out, initiating his own podcast series, Tom & Ty Talk, and as a guest editor for his company.

Tom says “For me it is vital that people working in the arts respond to the times we are in through creativity and self expression. Despite the political and social upheaval brought about by COVID-19 and our current government, the desire for art and culture remains. By continuing to be creative and bringing art to our communities, we will remind society and this naïve government of the true value arts and culture plays in all our lives.”

Chancellor Sunak seems to have forgotten that the arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy and gives jobs to 363,700 people.

The enjoyment and quality of life the arts bring to our lives is, however, much harder to measure. I know that I am privileged as I earn a reasonable income which I spend first and foremost on the arts. Life has lost its technicolour, since frequent carefree visits to the Royal Ballet, Sadlers Wells, Birmingham Royal Nutcracker seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, and London musicals are no more. I miss the bonding experience of going to see live music with my three teenage girls or treating my mum to a classical concert visit together.

These are small worries in comparison to existential crisis. The stress and worry caused by the uncertainty and lack of support is taking a toll on those working in the arts. Is Universal credit really an option? Of course it isn’t, as this quote from Geddy Stringer illustrates vividly:

“I timed my move to London terribly, having just finished a somewhat interrupted year on the MA in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. There’s been no clear support from the government and no industry to work in. I’ve been trying desperately to get a part-time job elsewhere, but the job market is a minefield to say the least. My only option has been Universal Credit. I know that this can’t last forever, nor do I want to take it for much longer. But until the government sees the arts as a viable and lasting career option – instead of a hobby – and gives it the support it has long justified, then there isn’t really anywhere else to go.”

So what is the answer? A government funded rescue package doesn’t come soon enough. But a rescue package is exactly that – a sticking plaster. What we need is a long-term strategic solution, as COVID-19 is not going to go away in a hurry. More than ever, we need to continue to celebrate the past, present and future of the arts as  part of our legacy and identity.

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Student life in the time of COVID-19

As the new academic year commences soon on 5 October, this blog summarises the current public health advice and information to remind students what they need to know before the university term starts.  

Birkbeck's main building, Torrington Square

Birkbeck’s main building, Torrington Square

Protect yourself, your university and the wider community remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’.

  • Wash your hands regularly 
  • The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing
  • We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings
  • Get a test and self-isolate if you develop symptoms 
  • Use the NHS Test and Trace app

Whether you’re a new or returning student you’ll no doubt have lots of questions or concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact your student life. Whether you are already based in London or moving to the city, you’ll need to know what actions you should take to keep yourself safe but also fellow students, university staff and the local community. This blog summarises the important public health advice and information to remind you of what you need to know before the university term starts.   

Public health basics  

You’ve probably been looking forward to starting or returning to university, your friends but it’s essential to keep the public health basics front of mind and always remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’. 

Your ‘household’ will consist of your family or flatmates that you share your home with or if you are living in university halls your halls of residence will let you know what makes up your household. 

Follow the student guidance and booking process for visiting the Birkbeck libraryWe will have very limited on-campus classes and events in the autumn term, but this is under constant review and we will update you as plans change.

The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing. We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings.

To stay safe while travelling try to avoid car sharing and using public transport at peak times. Walk or cycle when it’s possible and safe to do so. These basics will help protect you, university life and local residents, especially those that are more vulnerable. 

If you’re a student in the clinically extremely vulnerable group, having previously been shielding, and you have a particular health concern you should seek medical advice.

Moving to your university home 

Be sure to follow the government’s latest advice on coronavirus. London is not currently listed as an area with additional restrictions, but if you’re coming from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, remember that the rules and restrictions are different to those in England. It’s also a good idea to get up to speed on the overall advice on staying safe outside your home and find out your new local council so you can keep uptodate on local guidance.  

If you’re an international student coming to the UK from abroad, make sure you provide your journey and contact details before you travel to the UK and you know whether you need to self-isolate for 14 days when you arrive, and read the guidance on entering the UK safely.  

International travel restrictions and local restrictions can change quickly and without much warning so be sure to keep an eye on the latest guidance while making your travel plans.

What to do if you need to self-isolate 

If you test positive for coronavirus while at university, the rules on self-isolation remain the same. You must self-isolate for 10 days and follow NHS guidance. Your other close contacts that will be informed by NHS Test and Trace if they should self-isolate. 

If you’re living in university accommodation where someone in your ‘household’ (as set out by the accommodation management team) has symptoms of coronavirus or tests positive you must let the management team know. 

Wherever you live, you should self-report on My Birkbeck so the university can offer any extra support you might need for your course 

NHS Test and Trace 

Make sure the university has your latest personal details to ensure the NHS Test and Trace can get in touch if they need to – you can update your personal details on you’re MyBirkbeck profile. 

If you or anyone you’ve had close contact with test positive for coronavirus, you’ll be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and asked to self-isolate. If you are contacted, you will be asked to provide them with information they’ll need to help stop the spread of the virus. 

The NHS Test and Trace app is part of the national effort to get us back doing the things we love and every person who downloads the app will be helping in the fight against coronavirus. The app will help you to report symptoms, order a coronavirus test, check in to venues by scanning a QR code and help the NHS trace those who may have coronavirus. The app will do all this while protecting your identity and data security. The app will be available shortly so do the right thing and download it and encourage your student household and friends to do likewise.

Got symptoms – get a test 

Make sure you are clear about the symptoms of coronavirus and when you should get a test. If you have any of the following symptoms you should get a test: 

  • a high temperature 
  • a new, continuous cough 
  • a loss of, or change to, your sense of smell or taste

You can book a test on line at GOV.UK at https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test or by phoning NHS 119.

If you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, you can self-report on your MyBirkbeck profile.

Be mindful of your mental health 

Recent months haven’t been fun or easy for anyone not least of all students. The new online resource at Student Space has a variety of useful mental health and wellbeing materials that can support you. Public Health England has also published general guidance on mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19.

Your role is crucial 

By following the guidance on washing your hands; keeping your distance; not socialising with more than 6 people; wearing a face covering; using the NHS Test and Trace app, self-isolating and getting a test if you have symptoms you are helping to save lives. Respecting the rules will keep you, your friends and family healthy, and your university town a safe and enjoyable place to live. 

We will continue to post updated on Birkbeck’s coronavirus information page, and in the weekly email to students.  

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The importance of frequent handwashing to tackle transmission of COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases

As government’s across the world announce the easing of lockdown measures it is understandable to feel that the threat of COVID-19 has subsided for now. However, it is more important than ever to exercise caution. In this blog, Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry at Birkbeck reiterates and breaks down the importance of hand washing in the prevention of the spread of the virus.

 

We have been consistently reminded to wash our hands several times a day, but do we legitimately understand why? I am here to explain to why the Government is urging us to wash our hands with the intent to intrinsically stop the spread of COVID-19 and other, similar infectious diseases.

The novel infective Coronavirus causes a respiratory illness which implies that it is circulated through the virus-laden air-borne particles from sneezes and coughs, if we fail to catch sneezes/coughs in a tissue and carefully discard of it, the virus consequently ends up on surfaces where they can survive. Generally, we may fail to do this due to inconvenience and our predispositions; however, if somebody else touches that contaminated surface, the virus is able to transfer onto their hand and eventually can cause new infection to a susceptible host.

A recent study indicated that people touch their face 23 times an hour on average, the virus on your hands subsequently infects our eyes, mouth or nose when we touch it. Hence, the significance of washing your hands; not only to decrease the chances of you contracting the virus, but to prevent the spread on a global scale. When we come to talk about preventative measures, to decrease the chances of it spreading further, the public have a huge role to play.

Washing your hands on a regular basis ensures a decreased risk of contaminating surfaces and spreading infection. So, we have the basis of the importance of ‘washing’ your hands, but it is paramount that you wash your hands in an accurate manner for optimal efficiency in controlling the spread. Any Coronavirus is contained within a lipid envelope – essentially, a layer of fat. Soap has the ability to break this fat apart. As a result, the virus is unable to infect you and others. Moreover, using the correct handwashing technique mechanically pries off the germs and rinses them away.

Watch a video demonstrating the best way to wash your hands.

This video courtesy to Sreyashi Basu: While the video is demonstrating a good hand washing protocol, in order to save water, you should consider using taps with auto-off sensor or with elbow levers where available.

References:

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How can we manage our organisations and families out of the COVID-19 crisis? 

As we move out of crisis mode and settle into new patterns of working, Professor Almuth McDowall shares her advice on managing work and family life over the coming months. 

In MayI had the opportunity to deliver an online webinar for Barclays Eagle Labs together with their CEO Ben Davey. We tackled important and profound questions, not only about how we manage work itimes of crisis, but also our families and wider networks. 

Ben shared his experience of managing work-life balance. Initially, he explained, he fell into the trap of working very long hours and not having enough time to rest and recuperate. Now he makes an extra effort to go out, get fresh air and then comes back to his desk feeling reinvigorated. I could relate to this so much. During the first two weeks of the crisis, I must admit that I barely slept or ate, as there was so much to do, so much change to manage. Things have settled down now and we are working virtually as teams and organisations. 

Ben asked me if I had any advice for how to make this happen effectively, particularly in international contexts. The research on virtual working tells us that teams work better if they have had initial face to face meeting and bonding time. Well, none of us has had this. It might be something to go back and revisit – have you agreed a set of principles for how your team will work? Has everyone signed up? Regarding international teams, it can be really important to establish and preserve local identity, particularly during this time of crisis and uncertainty. Maybe each team could agree on a ‘strapline’ that summarises their identity and ways of working? Then provide teams with the opportunity to express their needs for how they want to work with others. Provide regular ‘feedforward forums’ so that the spotlight is not only what needs to be done, but also how you work together.  

The attendees in our online session were as concerned about managing their families as they were about managing their work. Many of them had noticed that energy levels are starting to wane. Also, how do you communicate with young children and teenagers? As the situation is so uncertain, a good approach is to focus on the short and medium term. Think about what is precious to you as a family, and what you can control. No one can control the media, or government policy, but we can control how we communicate with each other. Having been stuck in our homes for so long, it can be easy to fall into a rut and take each other for granted. Make sure you actively seek opportunities to talk to each other and share experiences. 

Another question was about how to keep teenagers motivated to do their homework. I shared my own experience. My middle daughter is doing, or rather not doing (in a traditional sense) her GCSEs. At first, we had several heated arguments as I wanted her to do more work, yet she was lying on her bed and talking to her friends. Being honest, I had to adjust my own expectations. This is an unusual situation. She is at an age where her peer group is more important than family. Will anyone really care about the grades she gets in her GCSEs this year? I think not. So I now let her be and chat to her friends. She is happier for it, and so am I.  

How can we help young children make sense of the crisis? Well, limit exposure to news at home, as ‘big words’ said in a serious tone are likely to unsettle. Children appreciate honesty, so don’t pretend. But find a way for them to express themselves. It might be helpful to get them to start a scrapbook, or a journal, where they can draw and chart their experiences visually – then talk about what you see together.  

Finally, we talked about the importance and power of goals at work, and at home. At work, many of us have been in survival and crisis mode. Now might be the time to agree what the priorities for the next few months are and state these very clearly. Then check in on progress and give each other feedback about how things are going. Revisit and revise as necessary. The same applies at home. Is there something you want to learn as a family? Something that you have learned through the crisis which you want to take forward? Get everyone involved in planning. Express your vision – write this down or draw it – but be sure this is shared.  

The crisis is hard, and we are in this for the long haul. Focus on what you can control, this will help you to sustain motivation. Don’t forget – we are in this together. Talk, share and reach out to others where you can. 

Further Information: 

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Many Days Late and Many Dollars Short: COVID-19 Institutionalised Racism and the Black British Experience

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector studies, reflects on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Asian and other global majority heritages.

I watched my first virtual funeral this week. I and around 80 others joined the 15 or so people who were physically present in Bristol UK to say goodbye to an amazing woman. I first met this woman nearly 20 years ago, when I moved to the city. She was then recovering from a brain tumour operation. My wife and I would give her a ride to our local church and on the way she would tell us stories about her nursing career in Britain and the obstacles she had to overcome as woman of Jamaican heritage to gain recognition in her profession. She would talk with pride about her children making lives for themselves in the UK and in the United States and of her dream that when she was able to drive again, she would buy herself a Jaguar. I never quite believed that she would get the car, but lo and behold eventually she did. She was the quite the character, one of a number of wonderful people in that congregation in St Pauls in the heart of the city.

I fondly remember tasty lunches with people of Indian heritage, playing games with families from Singapore, becoming a godfather to a daughter of Malawian descent, being pastored by a man of white south African descent and praying and fasting with Nigerian descendants, Guyanese, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Romanians, Croatians, Australians and white and black British. In that small church we weaved an international tapestry that criss-crossed continents, cultures and identities. Doctors mingled with taxi drivers, who talked to cleaners, dentists, lawyers, barbers and cooks. It was a living, breathing community with a network that was global in its reach and connections. The death of one the precious members of that community at this time is a very hard pill to swallow.

The bitterness of death is made even harder by the fact that the precious life of this woman will barely register outside of her immediate community. She alongside so many others will invariably be reduced to a BAME statistic. Night after night via the media and the data machine of the day, complex individuals with amazing stories and profound life experiences are reduced to racialised entities. In this reduction they are robbed of their humanity and their dignity. In life they faced discrimination in death they face denigration by statistics.

The primary data sets that reference the Black British experience primarily tell their/our story in proportion or disproportion to the ‘white’ population. The value of Black lives therefore according to the data only exists in relation to ‘whiteness’.  This invariably leads to them/us becoming a freak side show. Them/us are people that require further research and investigation, as opposed to being human beings that first and foremost need support and protection!

The statistics reveal that people from Black, Asian, and other global majority heritages are dying in some cases at four times, the rate that ‘white’ people are. A question that should be asked is why is this public health disaster only warranting calls for a public enquiry and a Public Health England investigation? We might not know why they/us are more prone to the virus, but we do know without question that they/us are particularly vulnerable so why are they/us not being shielded as a matter of priority? Why are they/us not being placed on automatic furlough?  Why are the circumstances around Black deaths not considered a national health emergency that demands immediate action?

Why oh why yet again after Windrush, Grenfell and so many other countless failings by the authorities of this nation are Black citizens once again left to suffer and die? Time after time like clockwork all we hear are words of regret and the promise of an investigation. Is that really all we are worth? Is this nation pathologically predisposed to continually s…t on its non-white citizens?

When a migrant descendant doctor, nurse, care worker, bus driver, supermarket assistant dies the impact often goes far beyond that of their immediate family. ‘Successful’ migrants and their descendants are often at the apex of complex and unfolding pyramids of influence. Their finances, knowledge and influence support communities and individuals both locally and globally. Where the state is absent here and abroad these women and men are often a vital cog in sustaining families and communities. COVID-19 is fracturing these community structures and the state through its lack of action to protect its ‘global majority’ citizens is adding salt to the wounds.

The country faces challenging times ahead. How we treat minorities and the vulnerable in a time of crisis is a true test of how ‘Great’ a nation we are. Britain’s Black, Asian and other descendant communities with origins from all over the globe have demonstrated once again their courage, loyalty, and integrity to support the nation in its time of need. What will the nation do in return? We need a systematic and comprehensive plan backed by substantial resources to eradicate racialised discrimination from our society. It is ultimately the only way to end the curse of the BAME label and stats with all their marginalising characteristics and connotations. There are many lessons that the nation needs to learn from this life-changing event, but one must be that it is time to end the madness of racialised inequality in this country once and for all.

 

 

 

 

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