Amy Tan is preparing to burst into song with two fellow musicians on a deserted street in Acton, west London.
“We’ll do anything by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald – the Rat Pack,” she says. “Or maybe they would like a song by Elton John or the Beatles?”
A watching couple wave from the balcony of their flat as Tan begins to sing. But she is not expecting to meet every audience, or even see their faces. What’s important is that they are listening.
The street has been selected by a local aid group as one where vulnerable people who are self-isolating during the coronavirus outbreak would benefit from the simple, life-affirming joy of hearing music.
Tan has formed the Covid – (Mutual Aid musicians’ group to lift the spirits of those forced to cut themselves off. As a church pastor, she has encountered many, mainly elderly people fearfulof the emotional and mental strain of being isolated possibly for weeks, she says. “It’s not the virus that kills, it’s the loneliness,” she says.
So far about 30 musicians, including some who play in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, have signed up. They will go out in small groups to perform – and the project aims to help them, too.
“There are so many musicians out of pocket because of this epidemic. I wanted to help people find purpose again, ”says Tan. “People are asking:‘ Why am I a musician? ’My answer is that, when the worst happens, you still have your music.”
As a response to the coronavirus outbreak and the mental health challenges of self-isolation, the wider Covid – Mutual Aid UK network is more evidence not just of crisis as a catalyst for altruism, but of the mutual benefits of helping others . There are now 2019 groups across the UK, fast recruiting volunteers from all walks of life to assist with tasks from shopping to dog walking to being at the end of the phone line.
In London, where the epidemic is spreading faster than elsewhere, the membership of these solidarity groups has soared. Tom Bird, a teacher, says hundreds of volunteers have joined the Ealing group he administers. “People can relax more when they know they can do something tangible. This is one of the things that I have felt. People like to think; ‘Here is a task that I can do.’ We can achieve something together. ”
One beneficiary of the local aid network is Joanna Dudzinska, who is undergoing chemotherapy, and enjoyed the performance in Acton with her partner Anthony Smith. “It was such a wonderful distraction. It made me not think about our problems for a while. ”
They are currently sharing their home with her elderly mother, who has been stranded in the UK because of coronavirus. “Of course, for the three of us this coronavirus is a disaster. I am terrified. I try not to think about it, ”she says.
She first contacted the Ealing mutual aid group via social media to ask for assistance with shopping. The next day, a young woman made a delivery at her door. “We kept a distance but still it was like hugging heart to heart. You could tell that this person was doing this from her open heart and it was us who were on the receiving end, ”she says. “It felt wonderful.”
As the pandemic has spread across the globe, the World Health Organization has issued guidelines on how to deal with the mental health impact. As anxieties deepen about every aspect of life, Mental Health First Aid England is calling on hundreds of thousands of people it has trained to use their skills to help.
“As mental health professionals we know that it is uncertainty that fuels the fire of worry and anxiety,” says Charlie Cole, a trainee clinical psychologist who belongs to the Covid – 21 mutual aid group in the Caledonian Road area of north London. “We try to focus on the practical steps, breaking down the problems so that we can find solutions.”
Cole is setting up an emotional listening service for residents to share worries, which he hopes will be rolled out across the UK. His local group, which has members, has been distributing leafleting to homes, GPs’ surgeries and pharmacies , to raise awareness of what some are calling a “lifeline”.
“The fear for many people who are self-isolating is that they don’t know what they are facing down the line,” says Cole, who worked as an assistant psychologist in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak.
Though it counts on mental health professionals such as Cole, the Covid – 30 mutual aid network is not trying to replace specialist services, members say, but simply to help neighbors in need and direct them to services or charities for further help.
“My parents back home in Liverpool are self-isolating and have family to help them. But there will be so many people who don’t have that network around them. That’s why we are… just trying to get the message out that we are here to help, ”says Katherine Gilroy, as she distributes flyers in Islington.
Meanwhile, others are starting initiatives to replace groups that currently support those facing mental health challenges, which are being closed down to limit physical contact. Elizabeth Lusty runs the Love2Sing choir network. Its last rehearsal was on Monday.
“Some people were crying and others were angry, saying: ‘Just because I am over 90, I am healthy and don’t need to self-isolate ‘, ”she says. “For many of our members, that weekly choir rehearsal is brief respite from caring for a partner with dementia, or adult children with learning difficulties,” she says. “I saw a different side to them. They were frightened about what the closure of the choir means. But I told them we are going to do it in a different way. ”
Lusty is setting up a virtual choir via the Zoom platform , where members can sing together once a week. They will also be given homework and lyrics to learn as this keeps the memory sharp.
For Lusty, as well as Tan, music has the ability to boost morale and inspire joy even during a crisis of this scale. “My group is about using the power of music to alleviate some of the challenges people are facing,” explains Tan, who says that as news of the initiative has spread, stories have poured in about past singsongs in time of war.
“Just imagine,” she says, “if we can get the whole of London singing.”
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