Category Archives: Project News

Early impact of Covid-19 lockdown on Muslim & Black Minority Ethnic women in Scotland

Sarah Armstrong analyses data from partner Amina, The Muslim Women’s Resource Centre. It shows the impact of closure of places of worship on wellbeing. The briefing also includes information about hate crime, finances, mental health and humour.

Amina, The Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, a third sector organisation working with women in Scotland, circulated a survey early in the pandemic to learn how its constituent communities were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The survey gathered experiences especially of Muslim and Black minority ethnic women and those in minority religious groups in Scotland, offering an important source of data on the experiences and perspectives of under researched groups. Amina shared this data in a partnership with researchers from the Glasgow University Scotland in Lockdown study. This briefing presents an analysis of survey responses, distilling key messages. 

This analysis includes 58 responses received between May and June 2020. The survey included questions about how Covid-19 was impacting people’s lives, with specific questions on employment, finances, physical and mental health, faith practices and hate crime. The survey was designed, publicised and overseen by Amina on SurveyMonkey (an online survey provider) allowing for online completion. The survey questions and comments of respondents were in English. The survey was first made available on 8th May 2020 and has remained open through the date of this report. Data was anonymous and shared via secure transfer with researchers, guided by a data sharing agreement between Amina and the University of Glasgow. Comments may be slightly edited for typos but are otherwise verbatim. Not all comments are included but are selected to display typical views on given issues.

The survey data comprises a small sample but one which offers an important qualitative picture of experiences of Muslim and Black minority ethnic women in Scotland. To date, there is little research exploring the Scottish experience of Covid-19 and lockdown for people in minority ethnic and religious groups, and this data offers a baseline for the early phase of the pandemic. Analysis of further waves of the survey can continue building the picture up for those who may face disproportionate risks, not only in terms of health outcomes but also in terms of the gendered nature and cultural specificities of coping with lockdown. 

About the respondents

Respondents were overwhelmingly female (all but one) and of minority ethnic and/or religious backgrounds, affording an opportunity of capturing intersectional gender, ethnicity, religious/cultural dynamics of pandemic experience. Respondents ranged in age across cohorts between 18 and 65, but the majority were between 26 and 45 years old (34 people, or 59%).

The largest ethnicity grouping of respondents was South Asian (25 identified as having Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian heritage), followed by White Scottish/British or White Irish (12), and then people of Arab heritage (8) with smaller numbers identifying respectively as Black, or of African, Caribbean, Mixed and Polish heritage.[1] Slightly more than one-tenth (6) said they had a disability. Religious group was not specifically asked about, but comments suggest many are members of religious minorities (primarily Muslim or Hindu).

Most people responding to the survey live in the central belt. Half are based in Glasgow (29), followed by Dundee and surrounding areas (13, 22%), with Edinburgh (7, 12%) the third most common region.

Closure of places of worship had impacts on practicing one’s faith, wellbeing, a sense of community and more

While some issues reported by respondents will be familiar to all going through lockdown, there are some specific issues facing respondents that suggest distinctive pandemic impacts for minority communities. Over half of respondents (30, 52%) said Covid-19 had impacted custom and faith practices. The key message of comments was loss of access to places of worship. This lack of access also was connected to increasing feelings of isolation and worsening mental health. There were more comments on this topic than to any other question, underlining the significance of this issue.

Comments highlighted the central importance of faith-based institutions for people of minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds, suggesting a disproportionately greater impact than for the Scottish population, which as a whole is more secular, and for whom social and community life is less dependent on such institutions.

‘We are unable to attend prayers in mosques and take part in iftar at mosque which is important for the children to see they are part of a Muslim community and to see our community is made up of different ethnicities.’

‘We have had to close our church, for the purpose of safeguarding public health. The right thing to do, absolutely, but has had an impact on the congregation, and financial implications for the church community.’

‘Missing fellowship’

While many comments mention specific examples of worship, faith-based institutions served a broader purpose for many respondents. Closure of temples, mosques, Gurdwaras  and churches had impacts on social networks and support, community connection, practical support, keeping up with others and even economic circumstances. 

Mixed views about discrimination and hate crime – the pandemic has brought out both the best and worst in people

58% of respondents had had contact with police

Covid-19 hit at the same time as Britain’s departure from the EU was in its final stages, and both the pandemic and Brexit have been associated with some uptick in discriminatory behaviour and in hate crimes across the UK. In Scotland, most respondents (35, 63%) said they had not noticed any changes in hate crimes in the early months of the pandemic, while almost a third (17, 30%) felt it had increased. A separate question revealed 16 (28%) had witnessed or experienced a hate crime at some point in the preceding two years. 

A striking feature of the sample were the number of respondents who have had contact with the police. Well over half (34, 58%) reported police contact at some point in their lives, and from comments this appeared largely in the context of witnessing or experiencing victimisation/abuse or participating in demonstrations.

Of those who had had contact, views were evenly divided over whether this had been a positive (15, 45%) or negative to mixed (14, 42%) experience.

Comments about discrimination and hate crime mentioned casual acts of abuse, but also drew attention to increasing levels of stress and suspicion created by Covid-19 which can heighten tension and the conditions for hate crime to occur:

‘someone shouted ‘stupid paki’ when driving’

‘Even though we look like a family, my parents and I were shouted at from a car on a late night walk by someone saying “don’t you know its lockdown”. The car turned around at the top of the road and came back the same way a few minutes later as if they were on patrol.’

‘Had more incidents in supermarkets people are being more verbal when being racist and this has increased since covid19’

‘The racial element of it [Covid-19] has been exacerbated even with regards to Islamophobia. Attacks against people who look as though they’re foreign and especially South East Asian is really high.’

While most did not feel hate crime was rising, comments to questions about health and work revealed perspectives of discrimination ‘behind closed doors’:

‘As a BAME [Black, Asian, minority ethnicity] health worker I have seen the effects of subtle yet catastrophic racial discrimination which equates ethnic lives less than white lives. I have a holistic health business which I have closed.’

Impacts already visible early in the pandemic: Emotional wellbeing and economic security

Two other issues dominated in terms of the impacts of Covid-19 – emotional wellbeing and work. Near majorities said Covid-19 had impacted their mental health (26, 45%), emotions (26, 45%) and work (27, 47%). Other significant issues included impacts on family dynamics (23, 40%), finances generally (21, 36%) and access to services (20, 34%). Physical health impacts were noted by one-fifth of respondents (12).

Table showing how covid has impacted finances, health and economic situation

Comments to questions asking about how Covid-19 impacted respondents show restrictions affected wellbeing less than two months into lockdown, offering an early glimpse of experiences faced specifically by Muslim and ethnic minority communities:

‘Children have been indoors for 7 weeks now, I wish I can take them out especially my youngest he’s 2 and half years and he has a low immune system than normal so we r only in our home or garden, no walks for us.’

‘I also miss connection with family and friends and faith. Although I do access these online, it is not the same as a welcoming hug.’

It is notable that at this stage (May-June 2020) financial concerns were not reported by the majority. Most said their money situation was the same as before the pandemic though it is notable that for one-third of respondents, just 8-10 weeks into the pandemic, finances had gotten worse. 

Table showing covid impact on money

Comments suggest, however, some uncertainty over finances and the dependence of these on the contingencies of both lockdown and the Government’s support through the pandemic:

‘my financial situation hasn’t changed much. I should be working, but I live at home so I am financially secure at the moment.’ 

‘I’m … able to save as not spending much on petrol and eating out.’

Others did express financial concerns, in comments like ‘Everything is so expensive’, and saying that finances like ‘Paying all my bills’ were on their minds. 

Government efforts to buffer the economic impact seemed to have helped some people, but did not provide full security or overcome a weakened jobs market:

‘Lost two jobs, provided with some furlough but this has now decreased.’

‘[My finances are] technically worse but I still get 90% so I’m not complaining’

‘mental health has declined due to being on furlough’

For those with physical conditions, maintaining health was challenging

38% had health impacts from the first wave of Covid-19

While 60% (35) reported no health impacts as of June 2020, 38% (22) said the health of themselves or their family had been affected by Covid-19 and lockdown. Comments resonate with the broader evidence showing disproportionately higher numbers of Black and minority ethnic people in key worker jobs, and with greater exposure to and risk of infection, noting the implications of this for health experiences:

‘My husband had covid 19 which he got from working in a hospital ward. He is a doctor. As a result he has been off work 4 weeks, it will be another 2 weeks before he will be fit enough for work.’

‘I am looking after 2 people who have to be isolated due to their health issues. I also don’t keep well but have to deal with it; at least we are safe so far.’

Management of one’s own or family member health conditions and accessing Covid-19 testing also presented challenges:

‘My husband had covid 19 which he got from working in a hospital ward. He is a doctor. As a result he has been off work 4 weeks, it will be another 2 weeks before he will be fit enough for work.’

‘I am looking after 2 people who have to be isolated due to their health issues. I also don’t keep well but have to deal with it; at least we are safe so far.’

‘We had no car when we needed to have my mum tested. The govt website was one big maze which was difficult to navigate for booking tests or finding out information on what to do if you do not have a vehicle.’

‘Daughter has a chronic condition and has had lack of access to medical care, medicine, on-going diagnosis, medical advice, etc.’

Some positives and displays of resilience through humour

While the survey highlights key negative impacts for Muslim and Black minority ethnic communities in Scotland, there were more than a few mentions of positives as well as use of humour as a sign of strength and coping skill. A small number also stated they felt Covid-19 had not affected their lives.

Positives included having more time with family and children, and for reflection, as well as supportive relations with (non-minority) neighbours:

‘Well, Ramadan [was spent] at home. But that was a beautiful experience. ‘’Impacted” doesn’t automatically mean negative.’

‘Masjid closed so no taraweeh. But being home and walks in park have allowed more time for spiritual reflection.’

‘When my husband was ill and was taken away in an ambulance, we were isolating ourselves, our white neighbours were so so supportive, continuously asking if we needed anything, bringing us juice, sweets for kids, ice lollies and one neighbour gave us a huge bag of toys for all 4 children.’

Humour came out in responses to questions about discrimination and hate crime:

‘I’m at home – no hate crime here.’

‘Positive [relations with neighbours]. I bring them cake, they can’t dislike me.’

Humour also was employed in sharing wry reflections on family life in lockdown:

‘shouting this survey to my husband while he cleans the kitchen.’

‘our food expenditures have doubled. 🤔 apparently we have too much time to cook fancy dishes’

Conclusion

Covid-19 has exposed the ways communities feel valued and or disvalued, are made safe or unsafe, secure or insecure. Surveys such as this can reveal specific ways that those in minority ethnic and faith groups may be affected, which can assist understanding how state and other actors can understand culturally specific dimensions of the pandemic as well as support health, wellbeing and community. 

Responses show how a descending health crisis interacted with issues affecting minority communities in Scotland. Closure of places of faith-based activity disproportionately affected respondents, women who mainly come from minority ethnic and faith communities, and this had impacts beyond loss of worship – affecting levels of isolation mental health, social interaction and support, sense of community and cultural connectedness. As this report was being written we heard anecdotally that when some faith-based places re-opened, briefly over the summer, they were opened only to men. If this applied across places of worship, it suggests women from these communities never had a reprieve from lockdown, and is worth paying attention to as the UK considers easing of restrictions.

The combined effects of impacts noted in this survey have revealed growing isolation, as well as resilience. These responses came in during Ramadan in the lead up to Eid in 2020. While the UK Government urged Muslim families to stay at home for Eid, it encouraged people to meet up in beer gardens, throwing into relief disparate cultural messaging and impact of managing this health crisis. 

At this early point of Spring/Summer 2020, many respondents reported negative changes to physical and mental health and a third said finances were worse. At the same time, it is important to note that most people answering the survey seemed to be managing without any significant impact on their financial or emotional wellbeing. It is now over half a year during a second Covid-19 wave and third lockdown phase, and it will be important to conduct further community engagement and data collection to understand how people are coping now and what supports might keep people from the worst outcomes.

To cite this document: Armstrong, S. (2021) Early impact of Covid-19 on Muslim and Black minority ethnic women in Scotland: Analysis of survey data, research briefing (February 2021), available online: https://scotlandinlockdown.co.uk

For further information, contact: Sarah Armstrong, University of Glasgow (sarah.armstrong@glasgow.ac.uk); Dilraj Sokhi-Watson, Amina, The Muslim Women’s Resource Centre (Dilraj@Mwrc.org.uk).


[1] Response options grouped ethnic and national identities, e.g. ‘Pakistani/Pakistani Scottish/Pakistani British’.

‘Why have we been forgotten?’ What lockdown is like for prisoners’ families

In this blog, Betsy Barkas explores the impacts of the lockdown on those who have spent it separated from a loved one in prison. Reduced contact with loved ones and a lack of information has increased the strain on people affected by prison, who have been ‘doubly hit’.

To support the suppression of the Covid-19 virus, governments have been encouraged by the World Health Organisation to adopt a policy of controlled release of those unnecessarily detained. In Scotland over the late spring of 2020 some 350 people (as reported by the Daily Record) were released. Everybody else was kept confined to their cell for up to 23 and a half hours per day, effectively in conditions of solitary confinement. In-person visits were cancelled, and access to communal phones was restricted. Three to four months later, new ways for prisoners to stay in touch with loved ones began to be introduced. These included virtual visits, physically distanced in-person visits, and restricted mobile phone use for the equivalent of ten minutes per day.

In this blog, we focus on what life was life for people affected by a loved one’s imprisonment during the first six months of this new regime. Isolation and a lack of support with mental health was widely cited by prisoners as serious issues for them during this time, shown by our analysis of a survey of over 80 prisoners across 14 of Scotland’s prisons (discussed in Things are ‘the same’: Complicating OK narratives of prisoners during lockdown and Mental health in Scottish prisons under pressure during lockdown). We found that these impacts rippled out beyond the prison walls to affect their loved ones outside, who feel let down and forgotten.

Worries about those inside

People in prison are individuals and experienced this period in different ways. We have heard (and discussed elsewhere) some positive experiences, for example for those who experienced this time as an opportunity to reflect, or as a reprieve from some of the more difficult aspects of regular prison life. In keeping with this overall pattern, some family members told us about some positives experienced by their loved ones. However, concern was their dominant feeling. One mother underlined the particular importance of face to face contact with her son in prison:

I had all these visions, nightmares, horror stories, thinking [about] where he is – could this be happening? Could that be happening? And I just worried constantly. And when I didn’t see him, I didn’t know whether he was okay, because I like to look at him. I like to look at him in the eye and say, are you okay? Can I believe you are okay? (Mother of son in prison)

For some people, their previous experiences of interacting with the prison and distrust had increased their worry. As one person said of her partner:

His head is just melted, but we’re not allowed to say anything to [staff] about that, because the stigma of mental health [in prison] is quite bad. And if you mention a hint of having a slight depression or a slight upset they put you in segregation, and then I wouldn’t be able to hear from him at all. (Partner of man in prison)

People who had been used to seeing their partner or child in person regularly, one or even multiple times a week, struggled with the sudden stop of visits in late March with no idea when they would resume. Initially, communication was squeezed instead into a brief few minutes’ conversation using the communal phone in the hall. Reduced access to the phone meant that prisoners had to choose between maintaining contact with a partner or a parent, or other support such as a recovery sponsor, while also managing risk of Covid-19 transmission.

One person explained that she hadn’t been able to speak to her son at all during this period as there was no sanitiser to clean the communal phone after the last person, and due to his own health condition he felt it was too risky to use it. They wrote to each other instead, and so it was by letter that he informed her that during his daily half hour break from his cell he’d witnessed another prisoner’s serious suicide attempt.

He was really upset about that. He struggled to cope with that, because normally the hall that he’s in is very settled. There’s no real problems. But this chap obviously just couldn’t cope with being locked up for almost 24 hours a day. Banging his door all the time. And there was other prisoners like that as well. So my son had all that as well to deal with, which was incredibly hard for him. (Mother of son in prison)

While the early release programme benefitted a restricted group of prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentence, the pandemic’s impact on court and prison processes has led to increased numbers of people on remand (those prisoners with least access to activities and jobs). Others had expected transfers cancelled at the last minute. These issues created huge impacts for their loved ones. A partner of a man in prison told us she had been looking forward to spending time with him following an expected transfer to the open estate, but on the day this journey was scheduled to take place, lockdown was announced and he spent the next six months locked down for 23 hours per day in his existing cell instead. This turn of events had left her ‘devastated’. When we spoke to her in September, she still didn’t know when she and their daughter would see him and told us the uncertainty felt like ‘being on eggshells’.

‘Doubly hit’

At a time that was stressful anyway, reduced contact with loved ones in prison was another emotional burden to bear. Prisoners’ access to communal phones was limited, and mobile phones allowed an average of ten minutes call per day. We spoke to one person who was shielding due to her long-term health condition and, as a result, lost her full-time job and found herself suddenly confined to her house with two young children and making a Universal Credit claim. This was an experience she described vividly as ‘like a train hitting you’. The lack of contact with her partner was extremely hard to bear, a period of time she had counted by the day:

‘[It] doubly hit me, because me and my two [children] were stuck in for 23 weeks. We couldn’t go out, [..] we couldn’t see anybody, couldn’t do anything, couldn’t do shopping. And having that person who’s your cheerleader, and who just absolutely is in your corner, [but who] can’t speak to you for more than five minutes, is absolutely soul destroying. […] I went 117 days without seeing him…’ (Partner of man in prison)

Service providers told us that the specific issues of family contact during lockdown were, in many cases, compounded by other problems generated by the pandemic such as financial insecurity, digital exclusion and access to support services. Children and young people were hit particularly hard by reduced contact with a parent in prison. Staff running support groups with these young people explained the move to online support by Zoom had meant the loss of a safe space away from home where they could discuss their feelings, and had caused many young people to disengage completely.

However, there were also some positive messages, including the creation of new and innovative creative projects with those young people who continued to engage with the digital alternative service. Staff also highlighted the possibilities to engage with families in more remote parts of Scotland, who would otherwise have been excluded. It is clear that staff and volunteers have worked hard and creatively to provide this support, which resonates with our wider findings about the third sector’s crucial role in mitigating pandemic impacts on marginalised groups (see for example Positives of lockdown for service providers).

‘Dangling the carrot’: the wait for information

In this context it is understandable that the introduction of mobile phones and video visits, both announced in April, gave hope to many struggling with the lack of contact. But as the weeks and months went by, anger and frustration set in. For context, Northern Ireland’s virtual prison visits began in April, but Scotland’s began in June). Despite the official SPS helpline for families, the overwhelming sense from those we spoke to was that information had been inadequate. They felt the official communication had been ‘diabolical’, that they hadn’t been able to find needed information, that there were no announcements, that rumours had confused them, that even instructions about how to access digital visits had been wrong.

There was a real sense of how much effort it had taken to discover needed information. People told us they had spent these months ‘badgering’, ‘constantly emailing’, ‘digging deep’ into the official policy documents, doing ‘lots of research’, contacting prison governors, MP’s, MSP’s, and being on Twitter and Facebook every day trying to find things out. Those we spoke to understood that there were legal and practical barriers to the introduction of these new facilities. But it was the delays and the lack of clear information that caused the most frustration, as more than one person described it: ‘dangling a carrot, but not quite within your reach’.

New rules, new dilemmas

Those who accessed virtual visits described their relief at finally seeing their loved one’s face again after several months’ wait. For those who struggle to attend in-person visits, due to lockdown or other reasons it was particularly helpful. As one service provider noted in a response to our survey of organisations:

The introduction of mobile phones and (especially) video visits is something we have fought for for years, and these are finally in place. (Service provider supporting criminal justice involved people)

As noted above, service providers identified digital exclusion as a particular issue and have provided equipment and practical support to facilitate virtual visits. But there were other difficulties too, including restricted time slots and technical problems. One person explained that the time slots, coinciding with school and nursery hours, excluded the possibility of her young child enjoying a virtual visit with her father. Others said that background noise had disrupted their conversation or that the arrangements didn’t feel private enough.

In August limited in-person visits resumed without any physical contact allowed (although children under 12 were exempt). Almost six months on from the beginning of lockdown, the resumed visits were hugely welcomed, but the new rules brought some new dilemmas. One mother told us she couldn’t take both her children because visitors are restricted to two at a time. It would be tricky enough to organise childcare, she explained, but she also wondered about the emotional impact on the child left at home.

At this point in an unfolding pandemic, missing a hug, struggling with technology or to speak through a mask are familiar experiences for most people. But these barriers to communication are particularly keenly felt by those attending actual or virtual visiting rooms, who bring with them so many worries about how their loved one is coping with life inside.

Conclusion

People who have a loved one in prison have been hit particularly hard by the lockdown restrictions. Although a diverse group, they are more likely to be affected by issues such as economic insecurity, particularly for families who have one parent in prison. Digital exclusion also disproportionately affects this group, complicating the good news of the virtual visits. What’s common to everybody affected by prison is that they are reliant on the prison and other agencies to facilitate contact with their loved one. In this aspect, the dominant sense was that they had been let down. When we asked people what they would like to ask the Scottish Government, a mother whose son was in prison said simply:

Why have we been forgotten? Why have we been so let down? That’s how we feel, let down. We have committed no crime. So why have we been let down and forgotten? That would be my question. (Mother with son in prison)

Betsy Barkas is a Research Assistant in the Criminal Justice stream of the study and is researching deaths in custody for a PhD based at the University of Glasgow and Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.

Things are ‘the same’: Complicating OK narratives of prisoners during lockdown

In this briefing on the prisoner survey, Sarah Armstrong focuses on the curious and substantial number of prisoners who said life in prison was the same during Covid-19 as before the pandemic. Exploring comments and comparing them with those from prisoners who said things were worse or better, shows that ‘sameness’ may signal not so much that things were ok, but that the pressures and pains of prison were similar to and pre-existed lockdown.

Content warning: a quote towards the end of the article refers to suicide and violence.

As part of this research, our team designed and circulated a survey for prisoners, with assistance of the SPS Research Office. One question asked how various aspects of prison life had changed during Covid-19 compared to what it was like before the pandemic:

86 total respondents, not all answered all questionsBetterThe sameWorse
Life on the hall15%21%64%
Personal wellbeing20%30%50%
Safety18%38%43%
Access to support services6%23%71%
Family contact18%19%63%
Relationships with staff19%46%36%

It is perhaps not very surprising that majorities have said living conditions in prison got worse, and we know from comments that a minority of people have felt the prison response to Covid-19 alleviated some of the negative aspects of institutional life (noise, bullying, crowding). But we were surprised by the substantial numbers of respondents who reported that life in prison had not changed at all during pandemic lockdown.

In what ways might people feel life is just ‘the same’ during a pandemic that has touched the lives of almost every person on earth?

By analysing the comments of the survey focused on respondents who mostly marked ‘same’ responses to questions about pandemic impact, a complicated picture emerges about what sameness meant to prisoners, and how this might be interpreted in terms of the success of the Scottish response to pandemic. (Note: the survey was distributed only to sentenced prisoners. Our team also conducted interviews of people who had recently left prison and of family members of those in prison, not included in this analysis.)

By one measure, it is clear that life, even In Scottish prisons, did not remain the same. A dominant strategy not just in Scotland but in other parts of the world , despite international guidance, has been to keep people locked in their cells for up 22 to 23 hours a day. In Scotland, this was the norm between March and June, and could return with the second wave triggering outbreaks in prison. This effectively constituted solitary confinement for thousands of people over months.

In person visits were cancelled in all prisons from late March 2020, as were all activities in prison run with assistance of outside volunteers. Regular activities also were severely restricted between March and August when prisoners could not access the gym, education classes, or the library. Most prison jobs were also suspended. Meals were delivered to cells rather than eaten in dining halls. Opportunities to socialise or even speak to one another were limited to a few minutes per day. During the lockdown, participants told us that their access to showers was restricted to one every other day, and they were only able to clean their cell weekly. Services and activities continue to be restricted.

Saying things were the same, in this context, therefore becomes curious.

Same good and same bad

My life is not been adversely affected by the lockdown. (Man, 30s)

No change whatsoever.  (Man, 70s)

There was one sub-group of respondents to the prisoner survey who mostly said things had remained the same, which we refer to here as the ‘sameness’ group; this ranged from between one-fifth up to nearly half of respondents as summarised in the table).[1] Sameness responses in the survey were accompanied by sometimes just a short line of text as above. These comments display ambiguity, but tilt towards possible positive (the first quote) or negative (the second one) readings.

We explored this: the person above who said ‘no change whatsoever’ selected ‘the same’ about every aspect of how life had changed during Covid-19 (in addition to life on the hall and personal wellbeing, they also said relationships with staff, family, other prisoners; safety had stayed the same). However, they answered in the strongest negative terms for almost all of the questions about keeping well mentally and physically in prison, selecting ‘never’ in response to questions about having healthy and varied food, a routine, access to outdoors, exercise.

This response pattern flagged up the possibility that feeling things were the same in prison during a pandemic as before, was not because prisons had managed to keep the lockdown’s effects away from prisoners but because prison was already experienced as deeply isolating and limiting. This is a theme arising in other parts of our study, from participants in other kinds of situations like being a refugee – the pandemic may have upended the sense of ‘normal’ for many of us, but was merely a continuation, sometimes amplified, of the already abnormal and alienating conditions of others.

The sense of things being the same but just amplified is evident in further respondents from the ‘sameness’ group:

Everything has [been] pretty much the same apart from getting dinner earlier and locked up earlier at night. (Man, 30s)

The regime has not changed that much apart from our being locked up almost twenty-three hours per day due to social distancing apart from no recreation there is no change. (Man, 50s)

Worse as ever?

Taking the insight emerging from these sameness responses, we dug further into comments and compared those of the ‘sameness’ group with those who had mostly said things had gotten worse or gotten better during the pandemic lockdown.

Here’s a typical comment from someone who selected responses mainly indicating a feeling of life getting much worse during Covid-19, while in prison:

‘Not much family visits. Less freedom within the prison ie, being able to go to both sides of the hall. Can’t cook food bought on canteen due to mealtimes. Always receiving worthless print outs about COVID. Locked much more than usual’ (Man, 30s)

Compare this to a comment from a prisoner who said things were much better during Covid-19:

I wouldn’t say it’s changed much, I’m currently in [prison], but my family are from the [rural] area so the virtual visits are a big bonus, as I’ve no person on person visits. Getting out of cell with smaller groups also helped me as I get anxious in big groups/crowds. … I also miss recreational time at night times as at the moment it’s in the mornings. The staff that have dealt with me have been amazing! Being locked up from 4.40pm everyday, I think we should [get] art packs, bigger options for dvds and books, just something for us prisoners to do to pass the time. (Woman, 30s)

For this person who had been unable to benefit when face to face visits had been allowed, the introduction of technology to manage the loss of such visits meant the pandemic lockdown response had actually constituted an improvement to their situation.

It is hard to distinguish these ‘better’ and ‘worse’ groups, from the sameness group. Here are some more reflections from the sameness group describing life under pandemic lockdown:

Not having visits, physical and mental health getting worse, lack of social life. (Man, 60s)

It’s been quite bad and early dub up [being locked in cell for the evening] also visit[s] have been cancelled which is shocking, I think. (Man, 30s)

The similarities of comments among all prisoners, regardless of whether they rated life in prison during Covid-19 better, worse or the same, is interesting and suggests some further implications. First of all, we should treat survey data on prison experience generally with caution, as the contextualisation of statistics gains added importance for contexts like prison which are in many ways exceptional. Second, and tied to this, the exceptionality of prison experience seemed to be about a sense of prison-normal as something which had already inflicted the pains of lockdown those outside prison are encountering during the pandemic for the first time: minimal family and social contact, mental health damage, boredom, limited autonomy over daily life. Prisoners responded to the pandemic exacerbation of these constraints by rating it the same, better or worse, but underlying this is a sense of a shared perception of prison, differing only about whether this is worth remarking on or being upset about.

Sameness: the exceptional becomes normal

Many comments from prisoners responding to our survey mentioned feelings of being forgotten or bottom of the list for concern about pandemic impact. A few saw the pandemic as raising awareness of problems that pre-existed it (from a long-term prisoner who felt things were much worse during Covid-19):

“I’ve seen guys hanging from bunk beds not a nice sight I’ve seen stabbings, slashings, fights, scaldings. How is a place like this good for anyone[‘s] mental health[;] why has it took for the pandemic for people to ask about our mental health.” (Man, 40s)

The majority of respondents shared negative perspectives of life in prison during lockdown, but this is hard to disentangle from the hardness of life generally in prison. So much is already taken away from imprisoned people, borrowing from Giorgio Agamben’s biopolitics concept, it seems that ‘bare life’ is hardly able to be made more bare by the incursion of pandemic. Agamben employed the idea of bare life to posit a state of society and politics where the exceptional becomes normal, and the sanctity of the person breaks down for some groups. Prisoners might be one such group, and their reflections in the survey offer some evidence of what he called an ‘inclusive exclusion’, a group around whom a discourse of rights swirls but a reality of exclusion and denial prevails.

The fact that descriptions of 22 to 23 hours a day locked in the confined space of a prison cell were common and were seen as just slightly worse than what prison normally felt like, should be a cause for concern not celebration. We will be documenting further analyses of the prisoner survey, sharing powerful accounts of how the lockdown within prisons has entailed profound suffering for those inside, and for their loved ones outside prison.

Here, we have explored how claims of lockdown not making prison life worse, actually reveal damaging aspects of prison in ordinary times. In a prison system officially focused on rehabilitation and governed through human rights-based frameworks, the seeming acceptance of draconian measures on the grounds of reducing Covid-19 risk, suggests not the support of people redeeming their citizenship but the conditioning of people to accept their subordination, “conveying the implicit state request to be compliant” as Javier Auyero put it in his ethnography of poor people’s waiting experiences.

The final quote below, from an imprisoned woman serving a life sentence who rated life as the same, shows both how little human intimacy those in prison received even before Covid-19, and how vital this is for coping with institutionalisation:

I miss my Social Contact like a wee hug after visit. (Woman, 50s)

The new normal is not new at all for those in prison, and shows how the pandemic is merely one more burden to be managed and marker of people as less deserving of care.

Sarah Armstrong @SarahAinGlasgow (she/they) is Professor of Criminology at the University of Glasgow. She is co-lead of the Scotland in Lockdown study. Her research mainly focuses on prisons and punishment.


[1] This was Question 4 in our survey (How do the following compare during Covid-19 to life before), and included sub-questions about life on the hall, personal wellbeing, relationships, safety and access to services. Response options were: much worse, worse, the same, better, much better.

Launch event: Left out and locked down | 17 Dec 2020

University of Glasgow logo
Scotland in lockdown: How have covid-19 measures affected your life?

Date: Thursday 17th December

Time: 11am for 75 mins

Registration: This event will take place online via Zoom, register on Eventbrite here

Please join us on 17 December at 11am for a 75-minute webinar launching the results of a major University of Glasgow study. Researchers spent six months studying the lockdown experiences of four groups especially impacted by exclusion and marginalisation.

The Scotland in Lockdown study (official study title: “Health and Social Impacts of Covid-19 Suppression in Scotland for Vulnerable Groups”) is funded by the Chief Scientist Office, Scottish Government, under its rapid Covid-19 research programme.

Partnering with 20 third sector organisations, the University of Glasgow researchers, led by co-PIs Sarah Armstrong and Lucy Pickering, focused on four groups:

  • Refugees and asylum-seekers facing destitution;
  • People in prison and otherwise affected by the criminal justice systems;
  • Survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence;
  • Disabled people and those living with a long-term health condition

The event marks the launch of the project report and its key messages. Over 250 participants in the study allow us to hear the voices of those facing particular hardships of Covid-19 lockdown through:

  • Barriers of information to understanding risks and following guidance around Covid-19
  • Impacts and experiences of isolation, food security, childcare and destitution
  • Changing access to services and the added pressure on third sector and statutory providers

More details to follow, including confirmed speakers and structure of the event. This webinar will be of interest to people affected by these issues, practitioners, policy makers, academics and media.

Registration

Please register your attendance via Eventbrite by clicking the link below and you will be emailed a link in advance of the event.

Experiences of sex workers during lockdown

Sex workers’ lives and livelihoods have been acutely impacted by Covid-19. Kristina Saunders shares insights from interviews with service providers about the pressures on this uniquely marginalised group.

The Scotland in Lockdown study has four study areas each focusing on marginalised groups and the relevant services. Interviews with third sector organisations in Scotland who support victim-survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence shone a light on the specific challenges faced by sex workers during the pandemic. Service providers raised issues around income and safety, and revealed concerns about organisational ability to appropriately meet the needs of sex workers during this time. Our research is reinforcing messages reported elsewhere about the pressures on an especially marginalised group. (Abbreviations used: SW = sex work, DASV = Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence.)

Income and financial support

Covid-19 lockdown and social distancing measures have intensified the social and economic marginalization experienced by sex workers. As one service provider reported, the need to halt face-to-face meetings between sex workers and clients has “resulted in a dramatic loss of income for some and a further pressure on already strained finances for others” (staff member at DASV organisation). Reduced income has resulted in difficulties repaying debt and paying for essentials such as food and rent, raising concerns from interviewees about the real possibility of increased homelessness due to evictions, and that some sex workers will have to give up additional rented properties that they work from. However, organisations also reported that continuing to meet with clients was an inevitability for some sex workers despite the health risk in order to make ends meet.

Though not all sex workers have the digital resources to do so, organisations were aware of a marked increase of selling sex online via webcamming or subscription based sites such as Only Fans. This is true not only amongst those who are already involved in the sex industry, but there has also been an “influx of new women” (staff member at SW and DASV organisation) previously employed in other sectors whose jobs and income have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Organisations reported that this proliferation in numbers has resulted in increased competition and “less income all round” for all of those working on online platforms.

A lack of financial support for sex workers was also raised during interviews. Informal employment status combined with fears of stigma and criminalization prevents access to government initiatives implemented during the pandemic such as the furlough scheme, and to receiving benefits such as Universal Credit and Self Employment Support. As one practitioner stated:

You’re self-employed but you’ve got no proof that you’ve been earning.  You’re not employed, so you can’t be furloughed.  You don’t want to claim benefits because they’re going to ask you what you’ve been doing and what you’ve done with all that money (staff member at DASV organisation)

As has been reported elsewhere, the complicated application process and limited support offered by Universal Credit and the furlough scheme (and barriers to accessing benefits due to having no recourse to public funds) can also be push factors to entering the sex industry as financial needs are not met. However, interviewees also reported that some Scottish Government funding has been made available for organisations to refer sex workers to, and some service providers have been directly involved with government funding meetings to make specific needs known. However, some sex-worker led organisations have faced barriers to accessing the funds made available by the Scottish Government, and have collectively organised to provide mutual aid to those they support.

Staying safe online

The shift to online sex work has also led to heightened concerns about safety, especially for those who are new to this area of the industry. As discussed by one practitioner:

Things like making sure you don’t do webcam when you’ve got your window behind you so they can see the shop across the road and that kind of thing…it’s dead easy for a punter to say, ‘oh, I know where that is’, and then turn up to the flat or whatever (Staff member at SW and DASV organisation)

Interviewees were also aware of the heightened pressures around income that led to some sex workers “pushing their boundaries or having their boundaries pushed” (staff member at DASV organisation) and engaging in more explicit and potentially violent work online. The increased risk of exposure and images being shared or leaked from online sites was also raised, along with the possibility of coercion and blackmail that may occur in conjunction. This was said to create issues around personal safety that may lead to added distress for sex workers who fear being found out by those close to them, as well as concerns around child removal.

Accessing support

One service provider expressed concerns about the support their organisation was able to offer to sex workers during the pandemic. As a relatively new service, it was difficult to create awareness about the support on offer, especially for those new to sex work who may not have information about keeping safe online or know where to access this. Echoing findings from across our research, the removal of face-to-face support can be difficult for service users and providers when trying to create and sustain meaningful supportive relationships via online or telephone communication. This practitioner referred to the lack of engagement with an anonymous online chat launched via the organisation’s website, and felt this to be a difficult place to share “really personal details about either selling and exchanging sex and webcamming or about trauma…You’ve no idea where that goes once you click that send button” (staff member at SW and DASV organisation).

There are also barriers to receiving online and telephone support for those who are digitally excluded (a key theme raised in our research), and some sex-worker led organisations have worked hard to address this issue in the absence of in-person support. Concerns were also raised by organisations about the challenges to accessing support for mental distress and substance use at this time, which are highlighted in this piece from The Lancet as key areas for intervention to ensure sex worker-centred services during and after the pandemic.

The issues discussed here offer only a preliminary insight from an organisational perspective into the heightened inequalities sex workers have experienced during the pandemic. With the tightening of Covid-19 restrictions, it is vital that an inclusive approach that listens to and acts on the voices of sex workers is taken, to ensure their safety and wellbeing as we continue to move through the pandemic and beyond.

Kristina Saunders (@KristinaS) is an investigator in the Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Stream of the Scotland in Lockdown study. She is also a postdoctoral tutor in sociology at the University of Glasgow, with broad research interests in gender and inequalities in sexual and reproductive health.

Hunger, health, dependence and autonomy: Food issues during lockdown

Molly Gilmour, Dominic Reed and Phillippa Wiseman explore the subject of food and how it affected interview populations during lockdown. The availability of not just food, but the right kinds of food, had a huge impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of participants from all the research streams in the project.

Food has played a central role in understanding how Covid-19 (and state responses) has shaped everyone’s experiences. While recipes for banana bread and sourdough starters circulated amongst some, supermarket delivery slots and mould ridden food packages featured prominently in daily lockdown lives for others. Food and its availability during the lockdown, was a common theme stemming from over 130 interviews and observed across all four groups of the project:  with refugees and people seeking asylum or facing destitution (RAD); survivors of domestic abuse or sexual violence (DASV); those affected by the criminal justice system (CJS); and those living with disability or long-term health condition (DHC). In many cases, participants (and the staff members working in organisations supporting them) mentioned issues in obtaining food (and the right kinds of food) as a result of the measures imposed during the pandemic.

But these difficulties, and how they were addressed, revealed more about conceptions of what food represented to different groups of people and how its provision (or lack thereof) was informed by the preconceived notions of these groups. To properly analyse the findings related to food, we are compiling a working paper which will be shared as part of the emerging findings of this research in the coming weeks. This blog offers an abridged account of these findings.

Food security: An issue prior to the pandemic 

The rising cost of living in tandem with low-paid insecure employment has increased the number of people living in Scotland experiencing food insecurity. Covid-19 has both amplified and exacerbated these numbers: by mid -April 2020 the Food Foundation reported that 600,000 adults in Scotland were facing food insecurity.  The subsequent austerity measures that are likely to be created in response to the impending recession caused by Covid-19, is expected to be equal to or worse than that in 2008, and will inevitably worsen food insecurity for  groups who already experience systemic inequalities and marginalisation.

In a letter to the British Retail Consortium in April 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) outlined their concerns about disabled people, who fall outside the government’s high-risk groups, being left unable to shop for food and essential items during the Covid-19 pandemic and left to decide whether they should shield or not (due to unclear and changing messaging). In May 2020, the Scottish Human Rights Commission outlined that food insecurity was already at an unacceptably high level and that some people who were not eligible for government support have not been reached by food distribution programmes run by government or charities. The specific barriers to food access for asylum seekers and refugees, disabled people, carers, and women and children was explained, and the authors cautioned that there is a risk that asylum seekers and disabled people may become increasingly dependent on food banks models due to Covid-19.   

Food and health

Difficulty in accessing food and the effects this had on health, was mentioned by participants in all groups included in the research. Several participants referred to health issues caused (directly or indirectly) by access to food. Issues in accessing food often acted to compound the sense of isolation that participants had. Other participants spoke about illness as a barrier to accessing food when they have long-term health conditions. For many, difficulty in accessing appropriate food often meant that they simply did without, noting that this had detrimental effects on both their physical and mental wellbeing. For participants with long-term health conditions such as diabetes, Chrohn’s disease, colitis (and other dietary and digestive conditions) having access to required food was essential.

Increasing reliance on the voluntary sector

What emerged throughout the course of interviews was the increasingly pivotal role played by third sector organisations in supporting the food needs of service users (often in the absence of meaningful support from statutory services ). This then had a huge impact on staff welfare and wellbeing, as they were required to undertake larger workloads in order to ensure that services users received the food they needed. Food deliveries, made possibly by the voluntary and third sector, frequently facilitated a sense of community and played a significant role in responding to isolation. Thus, organisations providing food serves an important purpose also of social connection and human/compassionate communication.

Food, dependence and autonomy

Crucially, our interviews showed the clear link between the availability of food, and the autonomy of those who might already have been isolated and excluded before the advent of Covid. Too often, a lack of access to food, or the right kinds of food, left people in a situation where they were reliant on others, be they neighbours, family members/friends or supportive organisations. This risked not only eroding people’s sense of self-worth, but also meant that many were unable to exercise any kind of control over the type of food they received. Too often this led to situations where people had to eat things that were not culturally appropriate or which they feared could have a detrimental affect on their physical health. The only other option, many thought, was to go without eating regularly, which many did.

The lack of access to food and lack of control over food decisions, then fed into existing inequalities and feelings of marginalisation and isolation. For example, refugees and asylum seekers, living in temporary accommodation, sometimes already feeling disempowered by their experiences with the immigration process (a process over which they felt they had little control), were then also unable to decide what food they wanted to eat, food which often, prior to lockdown provided a tangible reminder of the countries they had travelled from and which allowed an expression of their identity and community. Like refugees and asylum seekers, people with learning disabilities, women experiencing coercive control and people in criminal justice settings already lack autonomy over food, food choices and buying food.  It meant that disabled people and those with long term health conditions had less control over the food they ate, in some cases having to eat things which negatively affected their health conditions. Food insecurity has also placed additional pressure on victims and survivors of domestic violence to safely feed their children. For many survivors, the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown, forced them to relive past experiences of abuse where they were isolated and robbed of control in their lives by perpetrators.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare Scotland’s reliance on the third sector to meet fundamental socio-economic rights for people living in our communities. People living in Scotland should not be reliant on food provided by charitable, community led initiatives for an extended period. Yet our findings suggest that an institutionalised reliance on foodbanks, left many people with no access to food: those we spoke to were unable to afford to travel to foodbanks and could not shop at a supermarket as they were shielding. Moreover, some had to choose whether to eat food that was culturally unsuitable or  that made them unwell. This is a finding consistent with the Scottish Human Rights Commission in May 2020, who identified that the  food provided by charities to BAME communities, asylum seekers and Gypsy/Travellers did not show awareness of cultural requirements or the limited facilities for cooking and eating affecting these groups .

A dignified food access model, such as providing  cash first, will enable people to have access to nutritious and culturally relevant food. Furthermore, key stakeholders including retailers, must take a collaborative approach, which looks specifically at how to meet the needs of individuals. As we progress through the Covid-19 pandemic, it is becoming ever more clear see how policies are affecting the lives of people. The Scottish Government must ensure that access to nutritious, culturally relevant, sustainable and safe food at all times, is at the heart of decisions that realise human rights and address inequalities.    

Molly Gilmour (@MVGilmour) is a PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Glasgow researching how community engagement methods can be used to improve humanitarian medical provision in Lebanon. She is Research Assistant in the Refugee, Asylum Seeker and populations facing Destitution stream of the study.

Dr Dominic Reed is a Research Associate in the Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence stream. He recently completed doctoral research at the University of Glasgow into medical confidentiality and domestic abuse.

Dr Phillippa Wiseman (@PhillyWiseman) is a Lecturer in Social Research Methods at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on disability; gender, violence and inequality and everyday embodied citizenship. Phillippa is a Co-Investigator and stream lead of the Disability and Health Conditions stream.

Capacities and demands in times of crisis: Impacts on service provision

This briefing draws upon our survey of staff experiences at 56 organisations providing services to marginalised groups in Scotland.

As support becomes remote and moves online, concerns have been raised about impacts on relationships between staff and service users, but also between community organisations and communities at large. Some services have seen significant spikes in demand and the brunt of meeting these demands is falling unequally on smaller organisations that have fewer resources but refuse to turn anyone away.

Read the briefing by clicking on the link below.

Change and Challenge: Personal impacts for staff supporting vulnerable groups

Sarah Armstrong shares findings from our survey of organisations. Staff have been stepping up to the increased demands on services, but this has not happened without some negative impacts on their wellbeing.

The pandemic required significant change to the way work is done in organisations supporting the most isolated and marginalised. This has initiated some changes that may be positive for organisations resulting in better ways of working post-pandemic. However, on a personal level, most respondents mentioned negative impacts, some quite severe, of their work. This was particularly the case for those working or volunteering in services supporting domestic abuse and sexual violence survivors. Exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed and the emotional toll of working in one’s own home to support those facing destitution, hunger and safety concerns was large. This work is also gendered, with many more women than men responding to the survey.

This briefing reports on an analysis of two questions in our organisational survey about the personal impacts on staff in organisations working with excluded and isolated people; paraphrased, these are:

  • Since lockdown until now, have you or others in your organisation used personal resources to continue your service or carry out your work?
  • Please list the ways you or your staff have been affected during the pandemic.

A note on method: A total of 63 responses were received from 56 different organisations taking the survey between July and October 2020. For this analysis, about 40 open-ended comments were analysed in addition to closed question responses. Respondents generally worked in one of the four areas that are the focus of this study: refugees and asylum-seekers (RAD), domestic abuse and sexual violence (DASV), disability and long-term health condition( DHC) or criminal justice system involvement (CJS). Some worked in multiple areas and were categorised as BAME women’s or community development organisations. The most responses were received from DASV and RAD services. See the briefing About the Survey.

Stepping up to the challenge, wearing down from the pressure – divergent messages

There was no uniform way that staff responded to or were affected by working during a pandemic. “Different people within the team have experienced COVID differently” (Staff member at CJS organisation). This had to do with a person’s home situation and relationships, the kind of work they do and whether they had been affected by Covid-19. “Some have coped very well, while others are struggling.” (Staff member at a different CJS organisation)

There were challenges associated both with living with others (partner, children; see below) and those living on their own. For the latter, boredom, isolation and the loss of social interaction from work were issues.

“I was feeling very isolated whilst working because of my living situation so I felt lonely and found it hard to manage emotions for a while.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

We also note some divergence in responses corresponding to the role that respondents had in their organisations: 33 (52%) worked at an Executive, Senior Management (of policy or strategy), while 27 (43%) played an operational, direct services role. Executives and senior managers tended to praise the ways their teams had stepped up to the challenge of adapting to working in a pandemic and also to give examples of how they were supporting staff.

“We have conducted individual interviews with every member of staff about their work environments, wellbeing, and concerns about the return to the workplace.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Those directly providing services or overseeing those who do shared more negative comments about how the personal impacts of work (and see below):

“I feel completely isolated and unsupported. the informal support you get from being in an office or around other workers can be small be makes a massive difference to how you are impacted by day to day situations.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Paying to help, but that’s (mostly) ok

A graph showing the personal resources staff have needed to use in order to carry out their work, with a majority using their own non-work phone, non-work computer and other personal equipment, and almost a third needing to use their own money.

Most people are using their own phones (78%) and computers (62%) to work from home. (Some noted this was temporary.) A majority are also using other personal items or resources (56%), such as stationery, buying office workstation equipment and furniture, or commented on the costs of heating, lighting and other utilities (e.g. to support internet access). Nearly a third (30%) mentioned using their own money to support their work.

However, despite some of the more surprising comments about personally paying to support their work, most commented that this was not a problem, and might even be thought of as a duty. To be sure, some raised concerns about blurred boundaries or sustainability of this, but others said:

“It’s normal. We are all volunteers and use our own gear and make little claim on our finances.” (Staff member at DHC organisation)

“every person I feel has a moral responsibility to do what they can. Any personal resource I have used is because I choose to.” (Staff member at community development organisation)

In contrast, questions that asked about personal impact of working during a pandemic revealed a number of more concerning impacts on people’s homes, relationships and lives. These themes are presented next.

A graph showing the ways that staff members have been affected during the pandemic, with many reporting longer hours, more time off due to sick leave, increased stress and anxiety, and a negative effect on home life.

Paying through worsening health and wellbeing, and it’s not ok

Exhaustion ran through comments from survey respondents: exhausting work, exhaustion managing work and home life, growing levels of fatigue in doing emotionally demanding labour.

This toll is reflected in the numbers:

  • 62% said they experienced stress or anxiety working during the pandemic
  • 52% are working longer hours
  • 32% had taken sick leave (non-Covid-19, often stress-related)

 And in open-ended comments:

“Huge impact on my health and wellbeing. Nightmares about going to work, teeth grinding, panic attacks. Pain from unsuitable desk. Tension within the team over handling of the situation. Considering leaving this job.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

The stresses of work related to shifting to online forms of working, maintaining links with service users, looking after children and more. We do note that a minority of people said their working life had not changed much (6 respondents) and/or their mental and physical health had not been significantly affected (8). For most, however, we saw a high personal cost especially for people working to support those surviving domestic violence, as can be seen by the larger proportion of comments coming from this group than other areas of work.

“The staff are burnt out and our levels of secondary traumatisation/ vicarious trauma have likely increased a great deal.” (Staff member at DASV organisation, responding to a question about messages for Government)

It is notable that this kind of work is also gendered: where we could infer gender from responses (in 41 cases), 83% of responses were received from women.

Tough work intruding into home life

Eroding boundaries between work and home life as well as the specific challenges of looking after and schooling children at home were dominant themes of comments. Nearly 60% of respondents (36 people) said their home life or relationships had been affected by working in a pandemic. This often was connected to the nature of work people do. Confidential and distressing information were aspects of people’s work that accompanied a sense of feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

“I have worked continuously during lockdown in addition to looking after and homeschooling two small primary school age children at home 24/7 so I have had many double shifts and early mornings/late nights working around family needs. This has been stressful and exhausting.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“Supporting survivors in workers own homes has been difficult, invasion of personal, private, safe place for workers.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“I have no dedicated space in my home that is private enough to have conversations about abuse, child protection and risk assessment and am exposing my own children to language that they would not normally be exposed to.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Respondents mentioned a few of the issues that illustrate the emotional intensity of their work such as helping people who are dealing with, for example: destitution, hunger and food issues, suicidal thoughts and mental health challenges, and rape and abuse.

Adapting, and sometimes finding better ways of working

Change and challenge were clear themes of how working has shifted during the pandemic. For managers/executives, this meant covering staff gaps due to sickness or new demand, securing necessary equipment for staff and service users and finding ways to support their staff, e.g. through: team or one-to-one meetings to check-in, ensuring annual leave is taken and so on. (See also our briefing on Funding.)

“I think we as a team have managed as well as we could under the circumstances and tried to keep offering support. Always with high anxiety that we might be placing others or ourselves at risk especially in the beginning.” (Staff member at RAD organisation)

“Personally I have been proud of our response to our community need”. (Staff member at community development organisation)

“This was a trying time and many people were anxious and on edge. Where working relationships and friendships have been strained it is important to take this in context of the situation, forgive, and move forward as a team” (Staff member at CJS organisation, responding to a question about further views)

“It has been extremely difficult, traumatic and deeply divisive and has exacerbated existing issues within the organisation.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

Not only the means but the nature of work changed for some, with new services being needed or a shift to crisis work, and suspension of other activities (see our briefing on Changes to Services), and this had human costs for staff:

“I also feel abandoned by my senior managers, who shifted the focus to crisis work, I have been left hanging with no direction or space to discuss anything.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“My role changed from being community based service delivery to solely working from home and online delivery, I found that I was working split shifts, additional hours to fit around family life … This has proved challenging and more difficult as time has progressed.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Not all change has been bad (see also our briefing on Positives). Facing a rapid shift to ways and areas of working facilitated more effective approaches and showed the agility of smaller organisations to respond to change. There is a sense of many staff and organisations rising to the challenge and finding in some cases ways of working they will keep post-pandemic:

“many challenges throughout lockdown but have also identified many positive aspects and new ways of supporting women” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“My experience is that small, grass roots and third sector organisations were able to adapt quickly and effectively to meet the immediate needs of the communities we are embedded in.” (Staff member at RAD organisation)

“Our team have adapted remarkably well to Covid related changes and we feel there have been some positive benefits for example homeworking helping wellbeing.” (Staff member at DASV organisation)

“We have worked well to change our approach and under current crisis the team have responded well to a new way of working.” (Staff member at CJS organisation, responding to a question about further views)

Sometimes people found ways of maintaining face to face contact, though this presented its own challenges:

“We have managed to make socially distanced visits but these have taken place in the back garden or close area. This is not always appropriate particularly if raining or for confidentiality” (Staff member at RAD organisation)

Conclusion

This briefing has addressed different aspects of the impact on staff of working in sensitive areas during a pandemic. Like many sectors, working from home has become the norm. However, the people who need these services may rely on face to face and emergency forms of care with specific implications for the hours worked and for anxiety about unmet needs. There is a strong sense of mission for many, but clear and sometimes quite worrying levels of personal stress and health consequences for most. It is also important to note that work being carried out by services is gendered, and mostly done by women.

These responses mainly came in over the summer of 2020, and it is unclear how these impacts will worsen or wane as we move into winter. There are signs that the coming months carry a degree of foreboding and concern about the level of demand building up for services that have had to be suspended, as well as staff levels of stress over the long haul.

“We anticipate longer-term low-level mental health and wellbeing issues, even after the return to ‘normal’.” (Staff member at CJS organisation)

Sarah Armstrong (@SarahAinGlasgow) is Professor of Criminology at the University of Glasgow and co-lead of the Scotland in Lockdown study.

A request for recognition: Early analysis of our survey of organisations (Part 4)

Molly Gilmour shares more early findings from our survey of organisations.

Key Findings

  • People affected by Covid have felt unheard by decision makers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the implications of which has taken a toll on their mental health
  • Organisations urge the Scottish Government to recognise and preserve working partnerships that were created during the pandemic
  • The short-term financial support for organisations was highlighted as insufficient as COVID and subsequent implications will be long-term

Molly Gilmour shares early findings from a survey disseminated across Scottish organisations working with Refugees and asylum-seekers facing destitution (RAD); survivors of domestic abuse or sexual violence (DASV); those affected by the criminal justice system (CJS); and those living with disability or long-term health condition (DHC). This survey explored the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their services and staff. This is the fourth blog to be written from this survey, former findings have documented the impact of funding insecurity, some positives of lockdown and some of the changes in service provision.

This analysis will discuss the 47 responses, received between 28 July 2020 and 21 August 2020 by 41 organisations, to the following survey question:

We are feeding our research into Scottish national and local governments. Is there anything you would like to ensure they hear about your organisation’s experience, or the experiences of those you work with?

Digital Divides

Many organisations reflected on the switch to digitalisation of services in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and outlined that families living in poverty have not had access to the technology needed to access online services to receive the support needed. Furthermore, this transition to digitalisation was described as taking too long, for instance the use of video technology in the criminal justice system. An article in The Lancet (2020) explained how ‘any digital technology outside the Prison Authority’s direct control is inherently perceived as a risk’ and that despite rapid permissions, devices remained unavailable until the first pandemic peak had passed due to a prison’s inherent secure digital environment.  While some organisations proceeded with telephone support, many respondents recognised that non face to face services were not sufficient.

‘Face to face interpersonal contact should never be underestimated, so much nuanced information cannot be conveyed via text, email or Zoom/online conference calls’

(organisation working with survivors of domestic abuse)

While face to face working in many services was not advised, some organisations proceeded to continue to visit clients, though in different ways, for example meeting in gardens, public parks or at home where perceived necessary, to make sure that they can identify additional support when it was needed. A Social Work practitioner working with young unaccompanied asylum seekers shared that

‘We decided early on that telephone contact would not meet the needs of the young people and that to be left for several months in this situation would not be acceptable to us’.

“Nothing about us, without us, is for us”

The experience of communities not feeling heard was evident throughout responses to this survey. This was especially pertinent for organisations working with people effected by the criminal justice system. They explained that families affected by imprisonment were unable to see their relative in prison for weeks before virtual visits were introduced. The stress and pain of not seeing their loved ones took a toll on the mental health of these families, and criminal justice organisations documented in this survey that they didn’t feel concerns around this were heard.

‘People who experience poverty on a daily basis must be at the heart of shaping solutions – they are the experts who know what makes a difference’

(community development organisation supporting people leaving prison)

Increased transparency in the court process was identified as a solution for supporting the accountability of judgements, alongside mitigating the traumatic impact that the Covid-19 related criminal and civil court delays are having on those prosecuted, affected families and domestic abuse survivors. An organisation working with survivors of domestic abuse discussed the affect that Covid-19 is having on their client’s mental health, caused by the delays in court proceedings, as staff are witnessing an increase in suicidal thoughts, self-harm and coping through alcohol.

Covid-19 Community Response: The third sector “kept things afloat”

Organisations spoke of the wonderful partnership working that evolved in response to the pandemic. Respondents to the survey described how across communities resources were pooled when and where they were required to help those most in need. Staff working in community-based organisations requested that the Government capture the accomplishments that these new working partnerships achieved to evidence future policy planning and support the existing networks to sustain the effective and meaningful practice. For instance, the partnerships in Inverclyde across education, social care and the third sector were described as being ‘excellent and worth recognition’.

Grassroots organisations described how they quickly upscaled services at the beginning of the pandemic, to plug the gap created by inefficiencies of large and more bureaucratic statutory organisations in areas including food provision and mental health support. Respondents outlined that the adaptation to homeworking by statutory organisations took too long, and that they often either didn’t understand, or alternatively overlooked, the needs of the communities they worked with.

The feeling is that it was really the grass roots/third sector that really “kept things afloat” only to have our funding from HC threatened in the next year due to the council overspend.’

(Women’s Domestic Abuse Organisation)

A Request for Sustainable Financial Support

The short-term financial support for organisations that provided fundamental support during this period was highlighted an urgent issue for review by the Scottish Government, as the financial implications of Covid-19 will be long-term. Respondents explained that many people, particularly women, took on second or third jobs to try and pay for basic household essentials as their husbands had lost their jobs. Community organisations, such as food banks, are a lifeline for families in such dire financial situations. Staff working in these essential organisations were outlined as being ‘burnt out’, and an organisation working with survivors of sexual abuse explained that they expect to have an overwhelming demand for their service when face to face support resumes, and that this must be considered in future planning to ensure a healthy workforce. 

Furthermore, the survey identified the precarious financial situation that many women experience. For instance, the burden of unpaid labour completed by women was stressed which fuels economic abuse. A national income policy was proposed, as organisations argued that the Scottish Government should financially compensate this unpaid labour. In addition to this, a national income policy would support victims of economic abuse, a concern fuelled by the existing court delays, as they are not effectively prohibiting or punishing such behaviours from perpetrators. This national minimum income would also mitigate the precarity for the freelance and self-employed, and perceptions of favouritism that arose in response to the Covid-19 welfare payments, as short-term unemployed were described as being favourably treated compared to long-term unemployed.

Information & Accessibility: ‘Heading onto the Streets in Search of Outreach Teams

Organisations spoke of the lack of information and support received by populations who face destitution, are imprisoned, or reside in homeless shelters and people seeking asylum who were forcibly moved to hotels. Covid-19 was described as ‘nearly ending homelessness’ in the UK as it was reported that more than 90% of the country’s rough sleepers had been housed in accommodation during the Covid-19 crisis. However, the short-term approach of sheltering rough sleepers in the temporarily empty hostels and hotels was not a viable option to mitigate the long-term effects of Covid-19. These populations face multiple risks as they ‘head back onto the streets to beg and search for outreach teams’. The support offered to those housed at this time was described by staff as deplorable. An organisation working with people leaving prisons explained that their clients had been in hostels for months with no welfare checks. It is our understanding that through forcing populations into detention-like facilities, such as prisons or hotels, that information has not been effectively disseminated and people were detained in unsafe environments throughout this pandemic.    

Conclusion

These preliminary findings, while only indicative of the wealth of survey data, provide an insight into the manifold implications of Covid-19 on community-based organisations across Scotland. The pooling of resources for positive partnership working was described as a wonderful outcome of an arduous journey, however it is imperative that the resources needed to sustain this are recognised and supported by the Scottish Government. The mental health implications on staff, volunteers, and communities from responding to and living through the pandemic was described as an urgent issue which must be resolved. Organisations concluded that the long-term effects of Covid-19 will not be overcome by short-term solutions. For the wellbeing of staff, volunteers and the communities they work to support, the findings in this survey propose that sustainable funding from the Scottish Government and local councils alongside reciprocal and transparent communication must be realised.

Molly Gilmour (@MVGilmour) is a PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Glasgow researching how community engagement methods can be used to improve humanitarian medical provision in Lebanon. She is Research Assistant in the Refugee, Asylum Seeker and populations facing Destitution steam of the Scotland in Lockdown study.

Reference(s):

Edge, C., Hayward, A., Whitfield, A., & Hard, J. (2020). COVID-19: digital equivalence of health care in English prisons. The Lancet Digital Health2(9), e450-e452.