Humanity and the Pandemic: Helping Each Other Through the Crisis

Paddy Hanrahan is Strategy and Innovation Director at Helpforce, a Community Interest Company founded to develop volunteering in the NHS. He was instrumental in taking Helpforce from an idea to a national organisation, having been involved in establishing the Centre for Ageing Better. Paddy was previously a Managing Director at Accenture, where he worked for 13 years, largely with NHS clients.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were times I felt an underlying dread.

Could this be the end of the world? I can reflect now that those moments were fleeting. What we can say is that it has been a wake-up call for humanity. Absorbing too much news and too many polarised views on social media can make it hard to keep faith in homo sapiens but, when the pandemic struck, we were reminded that we are fundamentally social animals.

Within days, entire communities had mobilised.

Near where I live in London, there were WhatsApp groups formed at a family, street, district and borough level, with a surge of volunteers willing to help coordinate and undertake tasks for the greater good. Despite the fear of this new unknown virus, there seemed no limit to the number of people willing to help out neighbours and bring food and supplies to those most vulnerable and scared. It was uplifting to be part of, and a source of reassurance during uncertain times.

Reflecting back, I realise that this response was amazing, but there was often not a lot to do.

I was a member of four “informal” mutual aid groups and received just one task. At my local NHS hospital, I put myself forward for three different roles created specifically for COVID-19 but was never called upon. I was one of 750,000 to sign up to the NHS Responders scheme (which as an aside I welcome as an important piece of national volunteering infrastructure). It was six weeks before I was allocated a task.

So, what can we learn?

Most people want to help, and it makes us feel more secure, more worthy, more human. However, do we have a problem with actually asking for help in the first place? Why was there not more demand? Or was the demand there, but people were unwilling to show that they needed help? Or were the groups and initiatives that were formed unable to find the demand, failing to recognise that there were groups already in place (such as local charities) that were already connected? Within the NHS there is a similar problem.

There is plenty of need - demand has never been greater, even before COVID-19 struck.

How do we convert more of that need into opportunities for volunteers? Into opportunities to contribute in a meaningful and impactful way? Into opportunities to help those people most in need, to support our heroic NHS staff, and to benefit communities and health and care services while making the best use of the skills and time we can offer?

Helpforce was created to assist health and care organisations with this challenge.

Our mission is to accelerate the growth of volunteering opportunities, by proving the impact that volunteers have on people (on staff, patients, communities, and volunteers themselves) and services (in terms of productivity and efficiency).

The evidence shows that there is a case for far greater involvement of volunteers in our future health and care.

And when pandemics and other disasters strike again, we must better utilise the gift of skills and time on offer.