It was a year ago today when the strict pandemic lockdown restrictions were announced by the Prime Minister to the whole nation. Changing the way we live, work and play overnight.
Meteor reporters are taking this anniversary of a very strange and disturbing pandemic year to reflect on working and living under lockdown, highlighting the stories we chose to tell, and our emotional response to the challenges faced by us and the communities we belong too, and have reported on.
Due to Covid-19 families and friends have been restricted from seeing each other, which has been a particular tragedy for those with family in care homes. Work was done from home, for those lucky enough to be able to do so, while other key workers have had to face the stress of becoming infected due to essential public interactions, and many have become financially challenged due to the loss of employment.
Zoom and other forms of internet communication became a necessity and as journalists, we have adapted to this new virtual reality. Our stories reflected the situation of the time, but we also tackled things that were overlooked because of Covid but still needed addressing.
I joined The Meteor during the relative lull – marked by careful hopefulness- between the first and second lockdowns. However, this illusion of a break from the pandemic didn’t exist for all equally, like those living with a disability and chronic conditions in isolation.
Their situation became clear during the interview with the disabled people’s rights campaigner Rick Burgess for the collaborative piece with Alex King about the NEON spokesperson training, which prepares campaigners for often intense press interviews.
This article covered a socially distant protest in September against the government’s hostile environment policy and the re-opening of immigration registration centers. The lives of many undocumented migrants continue to be in limbo— uncertainty made worse by the pandemic.
Protests like this and making sure they get media coverage continues to be vital since there is no sign of change in government’s approach towards asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants. At the same time, the rushed anti-protest bill is being voted on in the Commons at the time of writing and, if passed, will erode the right to protest. The effects of the bill for democracy appear akin to the 2019 attempt to prorogue Parliament by Boris Johnson. The people of Manchester are aware of these dangers and have demonstrated in force against the anti-protest bill.
One of the cultural events that managed to successfully change to online mode was the Celebrating Syria- festival. True to its name the annual festival, which I covered here, honours Syrian culture through art, films, discussions and music organised by the Manchester- based charity Rethink Rebuild Society.
Because of the pandemic, I haven’t met Meteor colleagues in real life yet, which I’m looking forward to doing when lockdown restrictions are lifted.
A thin silver lining to this pandemic dominated time was starting my National Council for the Training of Journalists diploma last Autumn, which has been a motivator through this exceptional winter.
The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities, but, crucially, it also showed how just quickly these inequalities could be ameliorated if the political will existed to do so. Nowhere was this clearer than in the case of rough sleeping, where under its Everyone In policy the government helped councils provide emergency shelter for homeless people — for just £3.2m. The Meteor consistently reported on open letters signed by Manchester’s homelessness charities calling on the government to extend the Everyone In policy post-Covid or face a “humanitarian disaster”.
Covid-19 also saw the role of democracy in the making of planning decisions in Manchester further attenuated. The Meteor was early to point out that councils around the country had moved to online decision making in order to maintain public scrutiny of planning, during the pandemic. Manchester was slow to bring in these online changes and we platformed groups calling for the reinstatement of full scrutiny by the planning committee, in Manchester.
Several of us also began taking a look at workplace disputes, as Covid-19 heralds an unemployment crisis as well as a public health crisis. The biggest story by far has been the dispute between bus company Go North West and its bus drivers based in Queens Road Depot. In September, we reported that Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey accused Go North West of using Covid-19 as cover for implementing plans to “fire and rehire” nearly 500 north Manchester bus drivers.
The pandemic produced lots of fantastic art and I was lucky enough to report on some of it such as Charlie Watts’ Distant Future, a chronicle of the life of Mancunians under lockdown. From boxers, to pubgoers, to butchers, to single mums, this people’s panoramic is a snapshot in time, highlighting the anxieties, struggles and even solaces of the first lockdown.
I left my previous employment and became a freelance writer in September 2020, a move some might call rash. Slow at first, it’s now gathering pace. Besides, if the pandemics end of the world vibe isn’t the time to follow your dreams, then when is?
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Exacerbate became a well-used word, as the pandemic pointed out the inequalities that already existed intensified. My stories, during lockdown, tended to follow this theme.
Community groups have always struggled as they help out with those most at risk. Lockdown restrictions made it difficult to deliver these services that vulnerable people rely on. With the usual sources of funding decreasing and face to face support impossible, services that help with youth mental health, such as 42nd street, and Cruse Bereavement Care, who help the loved ones left behind deal with the trauma of death, were finding it increasingly difficult to offer their services when there was increasing need for them. This made it essential for me to report on how they are coping in these times.
Homelessness was addressed by the Covid aid package, Everyone In, and Manchester City Council implemented the prevention plan that they feel tackles the root causes of homelessness. But, as I reported recently, as funding ends there may be more homeless families, unless extra funding is announced to continue the work already done.
Education inequality was something that I felt existed before Covid, but my series about Inequality In Education, addressed how Covid widened the disparity in the areas of grades, racism, and the digital divide, and student groups such as the Media Cubs were able to have their Covid concerns addressed by Andy Burnham.
Volunteering at a vaccine centre, has given me a story of hope and my articles about a world class ocean scientist from Manchester and a Burmese refugee now living in Salford, show how adversity can be overcome.
Covid lockdown did not really change many things for me, though I do miss meeting people in real life. I find that the stories that I wanted to pursue before lockdown, have not really changed but the inequalities have been exacerbated. For example, the digital divide was there before Covid, but home schooling drew attention to it and made an even greater gap between different groups of children.
One year on, my hope is that by pointing out these disparities, that as we leave Covid lockdowns, instead of going back to normal, I continue to report and address these inequalities and some things will change for the better.
In spite of all the spare time on my hands, I didn’t get very much done over the last year. Spending most of my time indoors was a drain on my mental health, and I struggled to motivate myself.
In lockdown summer last year, I was lucky enough to report on this breaking story, Avian Botulism believed responsible for goose deaths on Ashton Canal. From then on, I devoted my time to data journalism, investigating stories that could be told from afar, like my second story of the past year, Can Greater Manchester’s planning committees keep up with the pace of advertisement technology?
Council meetings are still occurring through a combination of distanced sittings and Zoom calls, and I’ve been an avid viewer from the safety of my home. I caught up with the drama in Council gets personal in row over Central Retail Park, and I watched democracy in action with Climate Emergency Manchester petition results in council agreeing to redefine committee’s role in scrutinising climate action.
Finally, I’ve just published Have your say on Manchester’s statues and monuments – do they do the city justice? This was the one that finally got me outdoors again!
As well as supporting our writers in my role as co-editor at The Meteor, I wrote two covid-related features last year, both focusing on the mutual aid groups that sprung up in Greater Manchester at the start of 2020.
The first article highlighted the positive impact of mutual aid carried out within communities, often in response to inadequate or delayed state support at the beginning of the pandemic.
I explored the meaning of mutual aid, as opposed to charity or service provision – it is more closely related to the practices of community organising and co-production, based on principles of solidarity amongst people who are all capable of both helping and needing help at different points.
I also looked at the local organisations who have turned their existing structure and resources towards fighting covid’s impact, such as Acorn Community Union and 0161 Community.
Then later in the year I produced a follow up feature, looking at what the future of mutual aid might be post-pandemic and the challenges experienced by those leading mutual aid groups, including their interactions with statutory services.
Adapting my lifestyle and work processes in response to the covid restrictions brought both challenges and opportunities for growth. Like many of us, I had to get used to working from home full time, relying on phone calls and zoom more than ever. Though the nature of my work means I was often working from various different locations anyway, I had to give up my desk space at the wonderful Federation House, which is where The Meteor production team also used to meet. We subsequently moved all of our team meetings and public events online.
A lot changed for me last year, including the end of a long-term relationship, a house move and a number of work contracts being terminated early on in the pandemic, but one of the biggest changes was my leaving The Meteor production team in November 2020. Taking into account all of the events of last year experienced by both myself and the world, it felt like the right time to pause, reflect and move on to my next endeavour which is now just beginning to take shape.
I am incredibly proud of the team I left last year and continue to be inspired by the work they are producing for Manchester.
Reporting and editing for The Meteor over the last year has been challenging. The pandemic has overshadowed everything and has been a massive disruption to the way we live and work, but I was keen to report on crisis issues that were not getting the attention they deserved due to Covid-19.
The housing crisis continues despite the pandemic and increased risk of eviction, reported on in March last year, is a growing threat with the eviction ban up at the end of the month, with councillors and charities predicting a rise in homelessness when this ends.
Before the pandemic hit our co-op members voted for us to pursue a Raising the Roof on Housing investigation, which we continued through the pandemic. I reported on the need for more social housing to combat the housing crisis. I was happy to collaborate with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism on their investigation into social housing companies extracting huge shareholder payouts from housing benefits paid to vulnerable tenants – a twisted financialised version of social housing.
At a time when democracy is under threat across the world it was good to focus on Thomas Paine, a past champion of democracy and human rights who we can still learn from today. I also enjoyed looking to the future and the opportunities the Covid-19 crisis offers to create a better world.
As part of our Co-operative Manchester series it was a pleasure to report on the work of Co-operatives UK, planning to build “back better” with a bigger more resilient co-operative sector of the economy post-pandemic. Reporting on the excellent achievements of ALL FM, keeping the show on the road despite the challenges of the pandemic, was one of many stories we produced looking at the sterling work of community groups through the Covid-19 crisis.
It’s been a tough year, I really struggled to get to grips with the initial changes of lockdown and the weirdness of it, masks and all. A big project with many real-life public events had to be adapted to fit the situation and we successfully transitioned many of the events to online ones. I was sorry to see Alice leave, a trusted and reliable colleague who has been a major force in getting The Meteor where it is today. And I was happy to welcome new member Noora to our team. I was also ill with Covid-19, late last year, which was particularly worrying as I have a trio of lung conditions that put me in a risk category. I pulled through and I dearly hope the vaccination programme is a success, bringing this pandemic to an end.
It has been a crazy year, and a deadly one with over 125,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in the UK alone. For the many more left behind grieving a loved ones passing this tragic pandemic year is a life changing event. Even for those that have not suffered loss the huge changes to society brought about by this pandemic, for many this will be a pivotal point changing their path through life. Hopefully, the vaccination programme will gradually bring this pandemic under control and allow us greater freedom in socialising and travel, as 2021 progresses.
As reporters at the Meteor, we focussed on reporting on the inequalities present in society before the pandemic struck. We have continued to report on these inequalities as the extremes have been prized ever further apart by the challenges of Covid. And we will go on to report on stories that highlight injustice within our society and point the way to a fairer post-pandemic future.
By Noora Mykkanen, Alex King, Dale Anne McAulay, Katy Preen, Alice Toomer McAlpine and Conrad Bower
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Feature image: composite of Wikipedia Commons and Meteor image