This is a translation of the original article in Welsh.
On Sunday evening, March 15th, 2020, Yr Orsaf community café in Penygroes was comfortably full. Local poet Karen Owen was hosting an evening with Aled Jones Williams, and the café had just celebrated its first year in existence. “Things were progressing really well” said one of the founders, Ben. Siop Griffiths was set up as a social enterprise three years earlier, after the community raised over £50,000 to buy the old ironmongers shop in the village center, and turn it into a café.
“The Siop Griffiths project was intended to show that the community can create their own initiatives. After a year of building work, the house next door was ready to welcome the first visitors – that would provide the enterprise with an income. The café, with Pam cooking home-made food, was well established, and the workshop at the back had been converted into a Digital Center. After months of painting, the place was due to open in early April. Everyone was in good spirits.”
Yet, there were concerns about Covid-19. There were family ties with Europe. Gethin, Pam’s son in the café, had come home for treatment at Ysbyty Gwynedd. He had left his wife and baby son in Spain, and he was not allowed to return to them. Elliw, a local girl, had been in Italy for six months, working at a children’s community theater company. She came home on February 26, twelve days before the Italian border closed and the WHO announced that Covid-19 was a pandemic. The rest of the theater group – 14 of them – were stuck in one house in Milan.
A week after returning Elliw was appointed Community Transport Co-ordinator, and started working from Siop Griffiths. 26 years old, she shared an office with Greta, a girl of the same age who had already worked for Siop Griffiths since August as a Development and Marketing Officer. Greta had a busy six months getting to know everyone and organising a number of activities. She was looking forward to seeing the accommodation open. The third on the team was 18 year old Daniel, who was a digital apprentice under Rank’s sponsorship, and was within days of moving to his new space at the Digital Center. It was just a case of waiting for the paint to dry.
Their jobs changed overnight. The poetry evening on March 15th was the last night to be held at Yr Orsaf for a long time. On the Monday, Greta, Elliw and Daniel stopped working on their projects. Siop Griffiths decided to ask them to start organising the community response to Covid-19. On the Friday, the doors of the Station Café closed. By the following morning a new slogan was on a wall in Penygroes, ‘I gadw’n saff, cadwch ddigon pell’ (‘To stay safe, stay well away’).
The work that really needed to be done was clear – supporting the community and maintaining contact with older and vulnerable people. Within days, a leaflet had been produced and printed – under the name of the Penygroes Covid-19 Support Group. The leaflet had a dual purpose, collecting volunteers’ names, and helping people who were self-isolating. By the 20th March, a leaflet was being distributed to every house in Penygroes. The following day, the secondary school and the primary school in the village closed, and everyone was ordered to stay home.
“We are so glad we acted so soon. There was a local meeting in Llanllyfni, the next village, on March 17th, so Dyffryn Nantlle was at the forefront of developments” said Ben.
In the absence of any formal guidelines, the workers had to try to put their own processes in place. Within less than three weeks, a system was in place with over fifty volunteers in the village and over 80 asking for help. By April 4th, leaflets were being distributed in the village of Talysarn, a mile away, to a village without a Support Group. Talysarn was a Communities First village, and during ten years a million pounds was invested there. Yet, no support group had emerged, which makes one think that more is needed to regenerate a community than throwing money at it.
Procedures are now securely in place, but it was difficult at first, because of the lack of guidelines from the British and Welsh Governments. The issue of keeping volunteers safe arose, during a time of great uncertainty. How were older people going to pay for the goods, because they didn’t bank electronically? How were the resources to be taken to their houses? Each time the group, like many other communities, needed to search for the information and establish a procedure, with guidance from the authorities arriving too late.
“Every morning we have a meeting on the internet to support each other” explains Ben. “I have nothing but admiration for our young workers. We are asking a lot from them, and they have adapted to the change admirably. It’s not an easy job, especially during a time of such anxiety. They have to deal with issues beyond their previous experience: how to converse with people with dementia and all kinds of needs. It’s very emotional work, because we are dealing with people after all.”
Ben is older and draws on his experience when he was a young man in Tredegar during the Miners’ Strike. “This period reminds me of that period” he said. “That was an example of mobilisation, with the Miners’ Union and the communities working together. And we knew that things would never be the same after that. This is a similar time, things are never going to be the same again. ”
Have there been any shortcomings? “Yes” Ben replied. “The way governments have prepared for the pandemic, allowed the disease to reach the population, failed to protect workers with emergency equipment and failed to provide ventilators. The response has always put the economy – and the rich – first.”
Has there been inspiration? “Yes, definitely” Ben replied. “The Ogwen Partnership has taken on the task in Bethesda, Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog the same in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and were the groups we were in contact with previously. Cofis Curo Corona has been set up in Caernarfon. There are dozens of support groups in Gwynedd and hundreds throughout Wales.”
“So this has proved two things – firstly people are not really apathetic – they will fill the breach when the time comes. Even the clapping every Thursday night for the care services show that there is a strong feeling of unity among people. Secondly, it is not true that there is no sense of community. Covid-19 has shown that there is real strength in communities. In fact, when things go awry, that sense of community and caring for each other is what you hold on to.”
Is there another lesson? “Several groups in the area have been working together on the foundational economy. Covid-19 has shown us what we already knew – you can’t separate community, society and the economy. Also, the crisis has shown who creates the true wealth in our society. The care staff, the shelf-stackers, the council workers, the people on zero-hour contracts or the self-employed, they all have continued to work to support us, and in a real crisis, the bankers and billionaires have contributed nothing.”