Opinion: Unfamiliar Ground | Kaleidoscope and COVID-19

by Martin Blakebrough


A crisis such as this forces pressing issues to the foreground, issues that governments have long avoided taking sufficient measures to solve. Our under-funded health surface, often cruel welfare system and unacceptable numbers of street homeless are now frighteningly visible to all.

But, as the country faces a shutdown unparalleled in living memory, we are reminded of our mutual dependence, our fragility and indeed our ingenuity.

We are buoyed up with the rhetoric that ‘we are all in this together’, but in less turbulent times, this oratory is absent. The heroes of the health and social care system, alongside the vulnerable and marginalised they protect, are left off the agenda. Martin Blakebrough, CEO of drug and alcohol charity Kaleidoscope Project, asks if the coronavirus pandemic then, grants us the opportunity to bravely confront society’s afflictions, adopt radical policies at pace, and emerge with steadfast solutions? 

I remember the shock I felt as this virus hit China. For me China is not a distant nation, but the country my son has made his home. He kept me updated as his daily life changed drastically. From playing football, catching the subway to his school and drinking coffee with friends at Starbucks, to mass school closures, restrictions on travel and state intervention on a scale never before attempted. We all watched the nightmare unfold in the media and hoped it would not cross over into our own lives, but the nature of the virus and our interconnected world made the spread of the disease inevitable.

In the global context of vying superpowers, as ever, a blame game has played out. But it is over simplistic to denounce China’s live animal markets, and while their closure may have helped, we know there have been many epidemics the world over linked with our poor treatment of animals. Instead I am grateful to the Chinese Government for adopting measures that reflected the threat of the virus, and in locking down the whole country they contained much of the virus’ spread overseas. When we look back on history, their efforts will almost certainly be remembered as having prevented us from battling a deadly disease in dangerous winter months.  China’s actions confirm that every week, or day, we can delay this virus, the better equipped we are to deal with it and limit damage to public health and our economy.

And now as spring arrives, we must deal with this awful virus. Indeed many of Kaleidoscope’s staff are on the front line, whether supporting people in our residential facilities or at medical services that demand face-to-face contact. Our OST (Opiate Substitution Therapy) services and clinics remain operational, with pick up regimes carefully managed and outreach coordinated by colleagues who are required, by virtue of their vocation, to put themselves and their families at increased risk.

Staff like myself are the lucky ones, able to work from home. Although I am married to a paramedic, and so my chances of avoiding the virus are even less assured. In this ever changing landscape, nothing feels certain, and I’ve no doubt there are many of us in similar circumstances, with partners, family and friends doing vital work to care for the people most at risk. The frustration of front line workers at Kaleidoscope, and across social care, has been the lack of available safety equipment, and I can assure you we are doing all we can to resolve this. So as we try to keep ourselves safe, equally we must help our clients to survive amid impending lockdown, adapting our service delivery at pace, and offering increased virtual support to ensure our service users remain connected.

The days may be getting lighter, but restrictions on our liberties will lead to darker days. As the infection grows, worries will increase and we must ensure we help those in our workforce struggling with their mental health. I am amazed by our staff and how they have risen to the challenges before us. Now is the time for creative thinking, so how do we stay solution focused when we find ourselves in such unfamiliar territory?

The balance we must strike is the distinction between work and play, and for those working from home or self-isolating, this will be particularly challenging. It is important that we establish a routine around work and leisure, and we will continue to send health and wellbeing advice to all our staff. Though still we rely on new ideas, so please let’s share information, and where we can, pool together our resources and tools. Please, let us know of anything that is helping you, so we can share with our team and support each other.

The pressure on some staff will no doubt be heightened by having extra childcare duties in light of school closures. We of course welcome the Government initiative that supports key workers without the added support of a partner, so their children can continue to attend school. But we recognise this may not apply to all staff, and for those struggling, we can only expect they work flexibly from home and do what they can.

Social media is often portrayed negatively, but we are seeing its value today. It is important we use it to our advantage, and instead of staying glued to the constant churn of headlines, we encourage our teams to stay genuinely connected with colleagues. I have never known so many different ways to communicate, be it Zoom, WhatsApp, We Chat, Messenger, and I’m sure many others.

In the last week or so, government has at last recognised the scale of the threat we face, and many of the initiatives being implemented we support unreservedly. Efforts have been scaled to put safety equipment and health machinery in place, and policies introduced to help the lowest-paid weather the financial impact of coronavirus. Welsh Government today announced innovative measures to protect Wales’ rough sleepers by utilising otherwise empty hotels. The pace of new policy and legislation is unprecedented, all in a bid to protect those in our society who have long found themselves under the cosh. This reminds us what can be achieved when pressure, political will and the obligation to act align.

Though some members of the public have failed to comply with social distancing, there have been many more acts of great kindness and support. It is heartening to see local communities coming together to support the most vulnerable, and to witness our health and social care colleagues going the extra mile and agencies looking at new ways of supporting people.

The world we walk back into will be very different, and maybe we will see how it is a better place if we have learnt to care for each other. As we settle down to the new reality of life around us we need to keep safe, find time to laugh and also time to share our worries, and I am optimistic we will come through these difficult times. In China the shops are opening, the schools on the verge of doing so, and many people, my son included, can now enjoy the company of friends in a restaurant or a bar. So for now, where you can, stay at home. If you are working in the field then keep as safe as you can and follow medical guidelines. And hopefully in the heat of summer we may be like Luke, sitting out in the open with life seeming a bit more normal once more.

[Luke wearing mask as outbreak begins. Notice deserted streets in a city of 29m inhabitants.]

[Luke more recently as life returns to normal.]

This piece was written by Martin Blakebrough, CEO of Kaleidoscope Project & ARCH Initiatives. To find out more about the work Kaleidoscope Project undertake, please follow this link.

Tweets: @mblakebrough62, @Kaleidoscope68


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