When New Zealand went into lockdown at 11.59pm on March 25, the country plunged into severe social upheaval. The impact of Covid- 19 was felt around the nation, bringing isolation, stress and disruption to everyday life.
For even the most resilient, this new way of life was challenging, but how did the most vulnerable in our region fare? At a time when most of us were focused on our own family’s welfare and where our next bag of flour was coming from, others were gearing up to meet unprecedented levels of need in our community.
As we entered a national state of emergency, the region rallied to build strong networks, source supplies and support each other. Speaking to frontline workers across key areas including food, shelter, and welfare of the elderly, it appears our community was well serviced even during these extraordinary times. But are these services prepared for what’s to come as we enter an economic crisis?
A network of networks
Hawke’s Bay Civil Defence Emergency Management (HBCDEM) was instrumental in the early stages of the welfare response. In the days leading up to lockdown, the organisation was already preparing to move into emergency response mode, working with community agencies and organisations to make sure no one fell through the cracks. HBCDEM group controller Ian Macdonald, who led the Civil Defence response, said it was all about reinforcing existing relationships with non-government agencies and helping them respond in a collaborative way as the risk level changed.
As part of this HBCDEM’s regional 0800 welfare line was set up in April at the request of the Government to meet immediate basic needs, which ranged from information requests, to food support, emergency accommodation and clothing.
The welfare line was staffed by workers from Hawke’s Bay’s five councils and The Development Hub – a local organisation that provides employment, training and education opportunities to people, including young Māori and Pasifika women, sole parents and those returning to the workforce.
For people to be eligible for Civil Defence welfare assistance, they needed to meet certain criteria. This meant, due to Covid-19 they were physically unable to access household goods because they were self-isolating because of their age or underlying health conditions; have no family, friends or neighbours who could support them; or be unable to access goods online or have them delivered within a suitable time frame.
The uptake for assistance was unprecedented. In fact, after eight years in the job, Macdonald says he’s “never seen demand levels like this”. The majority of requests they’ve had through the welfare line have been for food, medicine and warm clothing. In addition, several agencies worked together to find emergency housing for the homeless. So far, HBCDEM Group has delivered more than 1100 food parcels and close to 170 winter clothing and blanket packages to people in hardship because of the lockdown. They’ve also provided financial support directly to local food banks, which they’ve put towards funding thousands of food parcels for Hawke’s Bay families.
The national state of emergency caused by the pandemic has brought new challenges, which the organisation is still working through, says Macdonald. Social distancing, the community-wide impact of the event and sheer length of the response, have impacted an already difficult climate; “And we’re still not out of it yet”. The organisation is also refining how it deals with multiple events at one time – highlighted by the ongoing drought response during Covid-19.
Macdonald says their welfare service was only part of the region-wide multi-agency effort that’s gone into getting people the help they need.
Safe and connected
Heretaunga Women’s Centre is one of a number of services that helped people stay connected during lockdown. The centre works for and alongside women, providing a safe and supportive environment, social connection and skills development. As the country moved into lockdown, staff quickly adapted by moving resources online, so they could continue to provide these services to women, says centre manager Amanda Meynell.
A ‘telephone tree’ kept in contact with women they would usually see regularly. Urgent counselling support was available by phone and online platforms, and staff continued to deliver 17 activities, workshops and groups each week via Zoom. Making sure people could access Zoom, download it and use it was the first step.
“Our focus was around wellbeing, so specific things to support women during that period,” says Meynell. “We had women delivering mindfulness sessions, yoga classes, and the opportunity for women to come together as a group online to manage any anxiety they might be feeling a result of Covid-19.”
Lockdown brought very different experiences for the women the centre works with so staff had to be able to support a range of needs. For some it was a time for reflection, while for others it meant added anxiety to an already stressful and isolated environment, says Meynell. “We couldn’t assume how people were going to respond and we needed to be able to provide opportunities for people across the board.”
Overall, Covid-19 has brought the strength of our community to the foreground, says Meynell, who believes we need to keep building on this. “If we work together we can overcome significant challenges that impact the lives of all New Zealanders, and if we could put the same focus and collective effort into eliminating major social issues that affect women and children and families, imagine what an amazing place our community and country could be.”
Taking care of the elderly
The community and volunteers from a number of organisations worked together to ensure our elderly were well-connected and looked after during lockdown. Isolation was a particular concern for elderly residents during Level 4, especially with many living alone. Food packages, shopping and medicine deliveries were made regularly to those in need, as well as a phone call programme to check in with elderly residents. The service catered for more than 600 people across the region.
Due to lockdown restrictions, a number of Meals on Wheels volunteers aged over 70 couldn’t help out as usual, but younger volunteers stepped up to ensure the essential service continued.
As the alert level changed, so did residents’ emotional reactions, says Presbyterian Support East Coast Social Services general manager Mary Wills. Initially there was a lot of fear around lockdown and confusion about the rules, says Wills. “But actually, they’ve been remarkably resilient and stoic.”
Neighbours kept an eye on elderly residents and helped out where they could. Welfare packages with chocolates and activities were delivered to more isolated communities. One-off government grants and “amazingly supportive” local businesses and community groups provided the food and other resources.
Wills was heartened to see how everyone in Hawke’s Bay had rallied. “I was really encouraged by the ways communities supported each other. We got to a point where lots of organisations were phoning people, neighbours were checking in and we didn’t end up with a lot of people who were lost, and I expected that we would have some people who were missed.”
Amid the positivity however, there were also devastating outcomes. Issues like family violence and child abuse were exacerbated by lockdown and continue to impact our community.
Police confirmed to BayBuzz that reports of family harm increased at the beginning of Alert Level 4, but these have since stabilised. A police spokesperson says while the number of reports went down over the course of Alert Levels 4 and 3, harm is likely to have still been occurring, but people were not in a position to report it.
“Anecdotally police have found that the reporting lines that would normally be available to people, such as schools, were not open. Alongside that is the fact that people were potentially locked down with the person causing harm, so there were limited opportunities to make a report.”
Police continue to work closely with partner agencies to reduce family harm as a priority.
As we emerge from the grip of Covid-19, demand for nonprofit services is expected to remain high. To meet this need these organisations will need ongoing support. An Eastern and Central Community Trust Covid-19 Impact Report identified two key areas of ongoing need:
Funding to provide essential or critical services and help keep the doors open. This includes meeting the increased demand that the crisis has triggered. Funding remains the biggest challenge nonprofit organisations face, and they’ve started feeling the pinch, says Meynell. “We’ve already experienced philanthropic funders saying they’re not taking applications at this time, try later in the year, or that they just don’t have the funds available.” Under a new approach, funding practices will need to be flexible and pragmatic. Providing clear and correct information about what is happening will also be essential, so organisations can find out about funding and how funders are operating during the crisis.
Connection and collaboration to enable opportunities. Organisations are looking at new ways of doing things as they encounter barriers and uncertainty. They are seeking information, support, and ideas from peers, networks, networks, government, and the community.
Where to from here?
All of the frontline organisations BayBuzz interviewed said their staff and the community stepped up to meet the needs of our most vulnerable during lockdown. If another unprecedented event happens, they were confident they could do it again.
There were other positive outcomes. A Napier Council Social Wellbeing Survey of 800 residents found half of the respondents reported a greater appreciation of life (51%), spending more time with family (50%), and increased physical activity (53%).
For Macdonald the pandemic has highlighted our community strengths and opportunity for growth. He is impressed by the way people accepted a compromise of economic wellbeing and personal freedom to keep people healthy. “That’s just part of being in a community and sometimes the needs of the community outweigh the needs of individuals and I think this was one of those occasions … we walked that tightrope really well as a country and as a region.”
The experience must also be a driver of change, says Macdonald. As we move into an economic recovery phase, it’s time to start addressing some of the social inequalities in Hawke’s Bay to ensure our region not only survives but flourishes.
The economic hardship however, is only beginning. The survey showed Covid-19 negatively impacted 57% of the respondents and their families. The most common negative impact cited was financial. The effect on local businesses was also of concern, with 69% of residents worried about small companies in Napier being forced to close.
Supporting local businesses is critical, says Napier councillor Maxine Boag. “If our local businesses can pick up, then jobs and livelihoods will be safe, and families supported. Like the message of staying home and staying safe, now the message of ‘buy local’ needs to be seen as critical – to support the ongoing recovery and rebuild of our communities,” she says.
Buoyed by Covid-19 relief efforts, there is a sense of cautious optimism among local nonprofit organisations that they can face whatever lies ahead. However, they know they need to do things differently if they’re to survive prolonged economic stress, and a rise in mental stress, food needs and family harm expected to come with it.
Philanthropic funding lies at the heart of these organisations and already some of their streams have started to dry up. To adapt, organisations will look at new funding opportunities through different fundraising methods, corporate sponsorship, and foundations. Streamlining internal systems will also reduce administration costs.
Many organisations will continue to offer in-centre and online services developed during lockdown, to widen their reach. In preparation for increased demand, nonprofit groups are recruiting additional staff to ensure they can continue to serve our community.
Flexibility is essential for survival during changing times and these essential services are confident they are up to the challenge.
Below- Rosalie Hall, Havelock North, and Judith Ellis, Taradale, happy to receive their Enliven day programme biscuit delivery as we went to Level 3.