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Comment: Hope is still alive in Leicester, despite the lockdown

by
14 July 2020

It is wrong to suggest that the city’s problems are a result of its diversity, says David Monteith

PA

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past artwork in Leicester, on 29 June

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past artwork in Leicester, on 29 June

ON 29 JUNE, after days of speculation, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that Leicester would have the first imposed English local lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic (News, 3 July).

Political allegations and tensions between central and local government were revealed and are ongoing. Like the rest of the country, we had expected things to open up. The Cathedral was due to offer space for private prayer on 1 July, and public worship was to follow. Just as with local businesses, we had made extensive preparations, spent money on equipment and staffing, and raised expectations.

We speedily undid all of this. To a person, we all felt flat and disappointed. The Easter candle, which had not been lit at Easter, was due to be blessed by the Bishop, and I was to carry it in, reaffirming the light of Christ in the heart of this city. Sadly, the candle remains stored in the cardboard box.

We were not surprised to find the days that followed difficult. We understood that, if cases were rising and if there was a local problem, then something decisive had to be done.

It is the unforeseen consequences of local lockdown that merit attention, however. Some of these consequences may be particular to Leicester, but they are indicative of possible impacts that could be felt elsewhere.

 

FIRST, we are experiencing a kind of partition across our community (inside and outside the designated red zone). For me, this has hues of growing up on the border in Ireland. As then, our border is being policed and enforced. Colleagues living in neighbouring villages on the edge of the city cannot travel into the Cathedral. Archdeacons with parishes across the zones are trapped inside, unable to travel out unless their journeys can be proved to be “essential”.

Our diocese is doughnut-shaped: the market towns and villages of the county surround the city. Bridging these divides between rural and urban, between multicultural and more monocultural is a key gift offered by our Christian faith and the calling of our diocese. Our Cathedral’s strapline is to be “A beating heart for city and county”. The Labour city mayor and the Conservative county council leader are often heard saying, “What is good for the city is good for the county,” and vice versa. Presently, we are divided, and division invariably brings suspicion. Misunderstanding has ground to take root.

Second, there are people from every community who are testing positive for Covid-19. More than 50 per cent of our community have BAME heritage, and we know from national statistics of their increased vulnerability, but it is no more the case here than in any other city.

Testing has increased hugely. The vast majority of the population have been responsible and are being responsible. Thankfully, the increase in positive cases has not translated into significant growth in hospital admissions. I have been saddened by all kinds of wild assumptions relating to this, many of them covering thin veneers of prejudice and racism. Blame has fed the insatiability of social media for heat rather than light.

In this very diverse community, we have known integration and genuine neighbourliness and partnership for years. Faith leaders, with others, have been key to establishing this togetherness: when one hurts, all hurt. This has shifted beyond words into social change. Joint social action by the faith communities has sheltered the homeless and fed the hungry.

 

AS WE saw with the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury, however, settled narratives of a city or community can quickly change.

With the spotlight on Leicester, there is an opportunity to be exploited for those who wish to claim that diversity is bad, or that healthy multicultural communities are a fiction.

We are determined to show that this is nonsense. In response, our Bishop is already working to launch Together in Hope, with partners across the community, which include the University of Leicester and Leicester City Football Club. It is a project that will unite us once more.

The newspapers, meanwhile, have been printing headlines such as “Cheap Leicester” in relation to allegations about the rag trade. There are more than 1500 factories in the city. It has been known for some time that, in a minority of cases, there are health-and-safety issues, and that the rights of workers are compromised. Some of this is clear exploitation, and veers towards modern-day slavery.

Sadly, however, it is likely to be mirrored in many other places. Local authorities are limited in their powers of enforcement, as well as in the resources they now have available.  Since 2018, a task force based on partnership between key agencies has undertaken raids in Leicester and brought more compliance into play. There is much still to do, and it is shameful to discover it here. The Church is part of the response through our diocesan social-responsibility panel.

Multi-occupancy housing is also highlighted as a reason for the Covid-19 spike. Of course, poor housing has always played a part in pandemics, but our streets of terraced housing are far from slums. They vary from “swish done-up” to “needing a lick of paint”, just like everywhere else. The streets of Soho or beaches of Bournemouth, however, offered us scenes of overcrowding way beyond anything seen in this community.

Yet the media has now made much of our problems. Exploitative or poor housing needs attention, as does a vision for housing to be not just units of accommodation but homes woven together as diverse multi-generational communities of varied economic means.Covid-19, yet again, is revealing inequalities, and the ways in which we have allowed systems of planning or regulation to be informed too much by functional considerations, rather than a richer, humane, long-term vision for well-being and health, as well as economic sense.

Many people in Leicester like to live as larger family groups, in areas which have a near by shop selling the fruit and vegetables that they use, with their place of worship just around the corner. I grew up in a multi-generational home, which offered a rich social context.

This way of life is not to be vilified, but, rather, to be celebrated. Far from calling this out as a problem, we should be looking to learn from the good examples of extended families who live modestly, yet live well. We want to break down social distancing long term, rather than build separation.

 

FINALLY, scapegoating a city will not solve problems. As ever, those who are refugees, asylum-seekers, and poor BAME people do the jobs that no one else wants to do. These sisters and brothers become the victims of a system in which others with power and money choose to buy cheap products without care for those who have made them. As consumers, we have the power to act. Rather than pity Leicester, we hear the call to be good consumers, addressing the injustices that sit under our noses.

Much is said about north-south divides. The squeezed Midlands is also too easily forgotten. The great story of Leicester winning the football Premier League in 2016 was partly because, in many minds, it was “little Leicester wot done it”. In other words, we were insignificant, not good enough; hence, the greater the shock of victory.

We do have challenges: weeks of additional lockdown mean that the future will be harder. Shaming a city, however, is destructive and irresponsible. Helping a community to face its shadows is necessary and healing. Vilifying and scapegoating is not a route to hope.

And yet hope is still very much alive in Leicester, not least through the practice of faith. God very often seems to be especially interested in people and places that, to powerful eyes, are less in vogue, but that, by repeatedly facing and owning their challenges, have learnt a mutual way of hope. We are learning again to be Together in Hope.

 

The Very Revd David Monteith is the Dean of Leicester and chairs the Church of England College of Deans.

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