In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. The pandemic led to extreme, rapid change in all walks of life to an unprecedented and extraordinary extent. Many countries around the world, including Israel, imposed restrictions on activity and mobility, and issued strict guidelines on social distancing. As a result, individuals and families spent lengthy periods at home, away from work, studies, and recreation. The combination of anxiety, family and financial pressures, and social distancing exacerbated situations of social risk and danger, due to the temporary loss of supportive frameworks that are the mainstay of children and families in regular times. The ability to lend physical, social, and community assistance diminished precisely at a time rife with danger, and communities were compelled to resort to creative thinking and solutions in order to provide the necessary responses.
There has been growing interest in recent years, in comprehensive community programs and the impact of social capital on tackling and preventing various social problems. Researchers and experts recommend that assistance to families and children be based on the community and its strengths, and call for the expansion of community programs in residential areas that are home to vulnerable populations.
Better Together (BT) is a comprehensive community program active in residential areas of vulnerable populations. It was established by JDC-Ashalim in 2006 with the aim of improving the welfare of families and children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The program is part of a group of community initiatives and is based on a model of change comprising three levers that lead to change in a neighborhood:
- Organizational Lever – The establishment of inter-disciplinary organizational infrastructures which bring together a variety of professionals to advance neighborhood residents
- Response Lever for Children, Youth and their Families – The development, consolidation, and expansion of diverse responses that respond to the needs of the neighborhood’s families and children
- Community Lever – Creating an infrastructure to allow resident activists and volunteers to assume dynamic responsibility for neighborhood families, and to enlist residents with leadership potential in program planning and operation in the neighborhood
This document examines the operations of the extraordinary, community emergency measures implemented by BT during the lockdown period imposed during the the first wave of the pandemic in Israel (March-May 2020), in two BT locations.
- To provide data on the extent of BT activities in Arrabe and Kiryat Shemona during the first months of the pandemic
- To examine the perceptions of senior figures in the local authority, program operators and community activists about the program’s activity during the national crisis, its contribution to, and impact on, the sense of community resilience
Nine in-depth interviews were conducted with senior local authority figures, program operators and community activists; data about the extent of responses provided was collected from BT’s Administrative Data System; and a literature review was performed of community program responses during the global COVID-19 crisis.
- Organizational lever
- The preparation of organizational infrastructure in routine times, for emergency situations. Interviewees perceived that the preparation in routine times of organizational infrastructure for emergency situations spawned a highly organized, well-oiled array of services and responses that operated in the unexpected, extraordinary crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- BT as intermediary between residents, the local authority, and aid organizations. BT activists occupied center-stage in emergency efforts: They were part of the local authority’s decision-making process for emergency measures, led the activist recruitment, received help requests from residents, mapped the residents requiring assistance, and directed the assistance to them. This process made it possible to provide precise responses to needs on the ground while enlarging the circle of activists involved in community life.
- Efficient, well-matched management of community activists and responses. The program operators mapped the characteristics of existing activists (age, illness, background etc.) and used the map to identify suitable candidates for action in times of crisis. They also projected scope of activity and the need for additional recruits. Following the mapping, a methodical platform was created to galvanize the existing activists and quickly mobilize additional recruits; the program operators and the activists adopted creative solutions to continue to implement responses and numerous community activities while maintaining social distancing restrictions.
- Response lever
- A broad scope of responses. Assistance was provided to 37% of all households in Kiryat Shemona, and to some 54% of all households in Arrabe. The responses consisted of food and groceries, medication, toys and equipment as well as respite opportunities, scholastic assistance and holiday activities.
- Community lever
- Strengthening and developing social capital in the communities. The implementation of emergency measures via Better Together strengthened the community’s social solidarity and collective efficacy and created a sense of unity even during the imposed period of strict social distancing restrictions and lockdown. The responses provided by the activists was helpful both to themselves and to other residents throughout the community. This change contributed to the shaping of a new community narrative and reinforced residents’ trust in the Local Authority.
- Substantial contribution of the emergency measures implemented. In the short term, assistance was provided to residents and they undertook to abide by the government’s guidelines. In the long term, the implementation of emergency measures helped develop social capital and made it possible to handle and prevent diverse social problems (such as domestic violence, loneliness, nutrition insecurity).
Summary and Recommendations
Restrictions and lockdown related to the COVID-19 pandemic were first imposed on the population in March to May 2020. The difficulty of implementing social distancing was multiplied several times over in areas characterized as low socio-economic, where housing resources are scantier and access to resources is lower in routine times too. The strength of community initiatives lies in the planning and implementation of responses and services, and the provision of extensive assistance suited to resident needs – and it manifests itself in underprivileged areas precisely at times of crisis when challenges facing residents are numerous. From the perspective of interviewees, the consolidation of the BT Program and some of its unique working principles demonstrated maximal benefit during the crisis. Several recommendations derive from the findings:
- It is recommended that the model be implemented in ethnically or culturally unique communities (such as ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Muslim) or in areas that are home to populations in low socio-economic conditions. This is because the program is able to adapt to population characteristics and utilize “local wisdom” to devise creative, suitable responses.
- The program’s reliance on community activists and their central role makes it possible to lean on the community’s strength in the provision of assistance and to connect with the local authority to receive resources. It is recommended that the connection and trust between residents and the local authority be strengthened as these characteristics contribute to the population’s compliance in following guidelines during an emergency.
- It is important to anchor the program budget within the local authority’s official budget over time and to allocate a municipal job for the city program coordinator in order to promote the programs’ continuation. Sole reliance on residents’ activitiy may wane or cease in the absence of a significant, professional program coordinator.
- It is recommended that continuing studies conduct surveys in neighborhoods with comprehensive community programs to examine the residents’ situation in various walks of life, and their satisfaction with their lives and with the extent of their community involvement. It is also important to conduct a comparison with residents of neighborhoods where no emergency community initiatives were implemented.