Barriers to re-engaging residents after COVID-19

In this blog, Networks and Communications Officer Peter Williams explores how funded partners are resuming their activities, and the barriers they are facing reengaging participants.

As many community-based organisations and projects begin to resume their activities as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, there are mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement.

The question for many of our funded partners is how best to re-engage people who have been restricted from face-to-face interaction for so long. When we surveyed our Active Communities funded partners in April 2021 on the impact of COVID-19, 74% of respondents stated that their members were feeling disconnected from their community and activity groups. We also found that 79% of practitioners were worried about the confidence of residents to re-engage with projects.

Maya Price, who leads Proud2Be’s Rural Outreach Project which supports people who identify as LGBTQ+ shared her thoughts on re-engaging members:

''Restarting our face-to-face work after such a long period was made easier in some respects because we have been able to provide regular online groups and events throughout the national lockdown. Many of our members still feel connected with Proud2Be, which is fantastic. The challenge has been for us all to adjust to being with each other in the same room again after such a long time communicating with each other via Zoom.

We believe it will take us all some time and for those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, some one-to-one support sessions in addition to our group services will be offered. We also recognise that before the pandemic, our services only reached those who were able to access face-to-face groups and events. We made the decision last year to continue offering online groups and support in the future, so our services are accessible to more LGBTQ+ people.''

There are lots of barriers preventing residents from re-joining activities, and many of these barriers are due to anxiety caused by COVID-19 which mean that people might be less likely to want to travel and meet others. Some groups, in particular face specific barriers to re-joining activities such as people with disabilities, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and younger people.

Disabled people who have already been hard hit by the pandemic are less likely to connect with other people because of the restrictions. In 2020, an ONS report found that more disabled people (83%) supported stricter lockdown restrictions than non-disabled people and were less likely to want to gather in large groups after restrictions lifted. As a result of the anxiety that has built up because of COVID-19, funded partners may find it challenging to reengage with disabled members, as they may now be reluctant to meet face to face.

Opening Doors works with people who have learning disabilities in Norfolk. They have highlighted the difficulties members face when using public transport to attend activities due to fear of passing on the virus to family members. As a result, members have lost confidence in leaving their homes to attend the centre and re-join activities.

Young people have also been hard hit by the pandemic as many youth centres which are vital for young people to build social connections were closed. We know that youth centres are crucial in providing safe spaces for people to meet and build relationships and this has not been possible. As a result of youth centres being closed projects have had to adapt to engage young people in different ways and moving their activities online.

Jay Mills a community development worker from our Local Conversation in Haverhill has highlighted the challenges in connecting with young people because of the pandemic:

“We encouraged other young people to get involved in activities but short of one other young person that attended twice, this was unsuccessful. Twice we attempted online Drop-Ins and socially distance meet ups at the Community Allotment. Due to general COVID concerns , only our regular was in attendance and these regular meet-ups lost momentum.”

Although the Local Conversation was able to finally reach young people and create engagement by setting up a virtual drop-in for young people, this example highlights how difficult it has been to restart activities and encourage young people to re-join face-to-face.

Some projects have reported greater engagement with their services due to a rising need amongst some groups to access advice and support. Race Equality First’s Active Communities funded project in Newport provides social groups, job advice, CV clinics and skills support to its members. Since the pandemic, the project has seen more of its members use their services as more people from minority ethnic backgrounds are now living in poverty as a result of COVID-19. They have supported people to apply for universal credit, particularly taxi drivers and those who work in fast food outlets who were furloughed. There has also been an increase in supporting members who have experienced hate crime during this time and the project anticipates an increasing need for its services as lockdown restrictions ease.

As projects begin to restart their face-to-face activities, it is important to understand that it is going to be a long journey for many people to feel comfortable re-joining activities and services.

One of the most concerning topics is the rise of mental health issues during the pandemic. According to a survey from the Mental Health Foundation, young adults, unemployed people, single parents, and those with long-term disabling health problems continue to be significantly more likely to feel the impact of the crisis. The survey also found that loneliness has risen among adults, from 10 percent of those surveyed in March 2020 to 26 percent in February 2021.

To encourage residents to re-join activities, we must first address the barriers such as mental health issues. We must also look at other factors such as jobs and income which impact people from specific groups from re-joining activities. Addressing these barriers will help people to re-join activities. We know our funded partners are doing brilliant work in reengaging their members despite the many barriers they face, and we will continue to support their vital work.