Bringing out the best in us

The pandemic has galvanised many people to help the vulnerable and elderly during the Covid-19 crisis. Guest writer Ray Philpott finds out what motivates these actions.

Across the country the vast majority of people have been making real efforts to support each other since the Covid-19 crisis struck. Whether it was clapping for carers every week, doing shopping trips for vulnerable neighbours, or taking part in impressive charity fundraising activities, thousands have stepped up to the plate to help others.

This upsurge in thoughtful, kind-hearted behaviour has been likened to that generated by the ‘Blitz spirit’ of World War II, which prevailed as the nation faced some of its darkest days. So, what is it about a crisis that seems to bring out the best in people and motivates them to go the extra mile?

Choices and decisions

There are various reasons why greater levels of caring behaviour emerge in situations like the pandemic, according to leading psychiatrist Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, an expert in understanding human behaviour under extreme stress.

“During lockdown, everyone was forced to slow down. The rhythm of our lives was disrupted as we faced a very real threat to ourselves, our friends and families,” he explains. “In extreme situations like this, people are forced to make a choice. They can be inward-looking, adopting a bunker mentality and primarily thinking about themselves – as exemplified by panic-buying, hoarding resources and fleeing to boltholes.”

Alternatively, adds Dr Obuaya, “they can choose to be positive and outward-facing, recognising that we all live in communities where we’re mutually dependent on each other and may need someone else’s support to survive.”

For a significant proportion of the population, being bound together by a common enemy generates a natural urge to reach out to people and act collectively. Consequently, offering time, resources, knowledge, money and physical help to others increasingly feels like the right thing to do for many, but not all.

Other factors

“When the rhythm and structure of life are disrupted by a crisis it undermines some people’s sense of purpose, identity and self-worth. Some seek to reclaim fulfilment and direction by giving their time to help others,” says Dr Obuaya.

Captain Sir Thomas Moore, who was knighted this year after raising over £30 million for the NHS.
Captain Sir Thomas Moore, who was knighted this year after raising over £30 million for the NHS.

Altruistic behaviour can also be motivated by a reaction to what others are doing. This may involve ‘social proofing’ – where people copy others’ positive actions and behaviours to be seen positively – or sheer inspiration, as epitomised by the impressive fundraising efforts of centenarian Captain Tom Moore, which drove many others to do more.

Dr Obuaya concludes: “Whatever the motives behind all this activity to help others, the amazing thing is it happened organically in so many different locations in so many different ways.”


Furloughed Foodies

One community support success that made headlines was Furloughed Foodies, a donation-funded voluntary organisation making and delivering free meals for NHS staff battling to save lives in pandemic-hit London.

At its height, it boasted 800 volunteers (most of whom were furloughed but some were still working), who were distributing 30,000 homemade meals a week to 16 hospitals. The movement even had its own highly active website and social media channels. But what inspired founder Floris ten Nijenhuis to start this ambitious programme?

“Back in March, my late mother was seriously ill with cancer and I’d been watching brilliant doctors in Italy look after her for 18 months and couldn’t just stand by – I felt compelled to do something,” he explains. “I was between jobs and delivering meals locally but didn’t feel that was enough. Then a doctor friend of mine said it was possible to deliver meals to hospitals and I knew lots of furloughed people who would help. The rest is history.

 “Our amazing volunteers had many different reasons for taking part, I’m sure. However, judging from the huge responses to any posts about delivery activities on our WhatsApp groups, it seems a common theme was the desire for a sense of community, with something to share and chat about together in the grim depths of lockdown.”

Taking control

For lawyer Pranav Bhanot, it was the urge to take control and unite people against the common enemy of Covid-19 that drove him to found the Chigwell Coronavirus Action Group. The group brings together the diverse vocational skills of more than 60 local volunteers to benefit the wider community in lockdown in hugely varying ways. It disinfects local public spaces, provides free legal advice to those who have lost jobs or had events cancelled, and offers free food and medicine delivery and even counselling for Covid-related anxiety.

Initially launching with just family members and a very small group of close friends, the number of volunteers grew rapidly as word about the group’s activities spread over social media.

Bhanot says: “I felt the pandemic basically took away our control of our own lives. Personally, I wanted to make a difference, to take back control and do something constructive to limit its impact.

“I particularly wanted to mobilise healthier and younger local people to assist those in the area who are elderly or more vulnerable. Our community was facing an enemy we needed to fight collectively and there was an opportunity to act because people felt motivated and took decisive action.”

How Sanlam responded to the Covid-19 lockdown

Keen to help people whose social and working lives were being disrupted by the pandemic and lockdown, we ran a digital events programme that was open to everyone and virtual summer work experience sessions for young people across the country, who had been disadvantaged by cancelled internships and unpaid training opportunities.

Between April and June we ran a series of entertaining and informative web-based activities presented by Sanlam staff and senior managers. These included mobility and exercise classes, a pub quiz, master classes in selfportrait painting with artist Eileen Cooper, cooking with MasterChef semi-finalist Christian Day and virtual cocktail mixing under the guidance of Joyce and Raissa de Haas, the owners of mixer brand Double Dutch.

“We invited clients, professional partners and colleagues to take part in each of these events and others covering financial planning sessions and social media training,” explains one of the organisers, Business Analyst James Taylor.

“Some of the most popular digital events were the Future Leaders webinars for 18 to 25-year-olds and we built on that to deliver a week-long, interactive work experience event for more than 60 young people.

“Senior managers gave tutorials and lectures covering everything from marketing and wealth planning, to starting a career in financial services. Participants were divided into virtual teams and asked to complete two projects, followed by a presentation on each to a panel of experts.”

He continues: “Through these events, we’ve been able to give something back to people that was entertaining and useful and, based on the positive reception they received, we plan to run more in the future.”


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