Information poverty is real

From singing workshops to providing computers, Afrocats turned from arts organisation to an essential lifeline during Covid, writes chief executive officer Magdalen Bartlett

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The panic was evident on the supermarket shelves when Covid was quickly seen as a credible threat in March 2020 and it was a realisation that, not only could life change dramatically within days, but that we and the people we love could be in danger. It spared nobody, those with and without money, with and without close family, with and without means of understanding the science. Now, imagine those fears as a vulnerable family, in insecure or shared accommodation, without English as a first language, with school age children and no access to technology.

Daily news conferences, Netflix, apps to log symptoms and infection rates or find testing facilities, online ordering and heroic home-schooling solutions became a soothing, if sometimes still stressful balm for the whole nation. It was something, even if there was nowhere to go. But what about those without access to broadband? Without a laptop, television or tablet computer? A radio, even? It led to darkness. Without public information in a pandemic, you are in grave danger from multiple threats.

Bukola had a mobile phone and nothing else, so Zoom classes weren’t a good option

Afrocats started a new project with children and young people in Manchester in 2020, but the pandemic changed our role quickly and completely. Our projects support families of refugee backgrounds and their friends using the arts to make social connections, build confidence and contribute to skills development. Many of our participants are subject to the huge stresses placed on them by the asylum application processes. It means insecurity at the best of times, but Covid took that to a new level. As support systems revealed themselves to be non-existent and society disassembled inside a week or two, who would step in? Afrocats quickly realised our role had changed.

One parent, Bukola, exemplified the challenge we had to rise to. An asylum seeker with two school age children – our country’s future, Bukola had a mobile phone and nothing else, so Zoom classes weren’t a good option. Were we happy to just let her daughters suffer a complete loss of education and social interaction? For how long? How would their mental and physical wellbeing be affected? It seemed that we were the only ones asking this question.

Bukola, out of desperation, also reached out to Afrocats when food supplies ran low and by no means was her family’s situation unique. In the absence of other support, Afrocats supported 187 people with culturally-appropriate food parcels for five months, but also the tablet computers children needed, access to wifi where it was possible and radios and television sets where they could be found. We initiated Connecting The Dots, joining together online links to support services for refugees and people seeking asylum. These weren’t only creative opportunities, but potentially life-saving connections like mental health services. Information poverty among vulnerable people was a real threat to public health and wellbeing – but it took a pandemic for it to become so plain.

Seventy vulnerable people were supported through creative online workshops, providing continuity with the projects we’d started with them and can now, thankfully, bring to a conclusion as we’d always intended, including Umbrellas In The Sun.

The government’s own data has made clear that minority groups have been most negatively affected by Covid and health professionals have published unambiguous evidence to show that people living on low incomes and in insecure accommodation are more vulnerable to a pandemic’s impact. The support wasn’t there. Between March and July 2020 Afrocats became a voluntary support organisation out of necessity, asking our funders – Arts Council England, Children in Need, Forever Manchester and the National Lottery Community Fund – to adapt with us. We’re thankful they could.

Is it still only us asking the question what happens as and when this happens again? Will the absence of access to basic information infrastructure ever be considered inhumane given the stresses and dangers of a public health emergency? Afrocats and organisations like us were able to respond this time, working as volunteers with the generosity of those around us, but will it be enough next time?

Afrocats presents Umbrellas In The Sun at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester, on 23 October. Tickets are available here

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