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Let’s remember 2020 as the year of social kindness

Social kindness needs celebrating, and encouraging, and becoming the bedrock hopefully of a revival of our communities

With a bit of luck and science, 2020 will go down in history as the worst of all years. We don’t want another like that again, and with science coming to our aid we may be free of the worst.

But if 2020 goes down in history as the year of tragic and avoidable deaths, unemployment, loneliness and separation then it may also go down as a year of social kindness. No year was so crammed full of a sense that we have to help those in desperate need. That we are at our best when we make associations with the weakest, and our humanity grows in magnitude because of that.

Social kindness needs celebrating, and encouraging, and becoming the bedrock hopefully for a revival of our communities and our dignities as just and caring.

I knew something was happening when a large supplier of toilet rolls and other cleaning items, including hand gel, issued a letter to all of its customers. If any customer that they supplied was found to be profiteering out of the supplies they provided, the company would stop deliveries.

That was when I woke up to how incredible the times were becoming. That the supposed indifference bred into us by decades of consumerism and commercialism could not hide our basic humanity. I suppose I was also greatly influenced and moved when a friend took his guitar and sang and entertained hundreds of people in his local streets. Phil Ryan, who nearly 30 years before had helped me start The Big Issue, did all of this without bidding. He didn’t need an impresario to arrange his Friday night street gigs. He sowed seeds of accord and a feeling of belonging in London streets that previously had been disinfected against affection and feeling.

I was astonished when the government in a blizzard of contradictory advice took it upon themselves for the first time in living memory to accept responsibility for rough sleepers. Not a hundred percent but they got as near as dammit and proved that we could solve rough sleeping if we had the will.

When furloughs came along I saw this as social kindness dressed up in the clothing of necessity. But I did not feel that it was political posturing, as quite a number of people saw it. I saw it as an opportunity to give space so that people would not fall completely into the trap of eviction because of job loss and thereby become a new cohort of the homeless.

I also knew that the big struggle before us was to keep people out of eviction and in work. So that we don’t have a new wave of people joining the homeless queue for temporary accommodation.

When Nationwide, the largest mutual in the UK, said that it would have an embargo on any evictions until May 2021, I knew that this unprecedented turn of things was an expression of social kindness.

I am sure that every one of us can talk about the sudden inclusion of the needy around us in the social equation of care and support. I know I can tell you of people who have changed their view of the spaces of their community because they have sought out how they can help. They have upped their sociability overnight.

As an ageing git I have even been offered onions and fresh vegetables by my local church, irrespective of my Marxist-Catholic leanings.

Possibly the greatest expression of social kindness is the exemplary way that the NHS came to our aid and proved itself, in spite of underinvestment over decades, as the star of the year

We have to enter 2021 armed with vaccines and good social distancing. But we also have to enter it with the social strength of feeling we put together through the social kindness of 2020. We have to build back better, and that must start in the community around us. Involving the young in seeing our social humanity as more important than ever, if we are to live a full life.

It’s not all cakes and ales, and I will expect some observers to not see the importance of Social Kindness. I know I spent many decades hating the social kindness of Christmas, when people cared about homeless people. I hated it because it did not extend beyond the season of holly and mistletoe and office parties. Homeless people were not just for Christmas, ran my argument.

But the bevvy of outstanding outbursts of social kindness that have peppered 2020 with a deep sense of solidarity is a good place to start the New Year. Be sceptical if you must, but not cynical. Cynicism poisons the holder, in my experience. Being sceptical is good enough. That means you might just be open to conversion to the whole idea that 2020 was a brilliant demonstration of how we suspended self-interest for mutual community interest.

Possibly the greatest expression of social kindness is the exemplary way that the NHS came to our aid and proved itself, in spite of underinvestment over decades, as the star of the year. And thank god for all of those late nights the Oxford team put in, giving us a vaccine to help us look forward to a healthier 2021.

If we do remember 2020 as a time of social kindness we will certainly have a fuller Christmas and New Year. And set against the tragedies and losses it might make the future a more bearable proposition.

All of this without mentioning all the wonderful support our Big Issue vendors have got from the public! Now that’s another page to contemplate.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. @johnbirdswords 

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