Lived experiences of the pandemic in Middlesbrough

17 December 2021

8 minute read

Andrew Divers, Catherine Parker, Clifford Johnson, Parisa Diba, Dorothy Newbury-Birch (Teesside university)

Researchers from Teesside University write a guest blog for CPP based on a co-production study examining COVID recovery from the community perspective in Middlesbrough.

The last 18 months of living with COVID-19 has been tough for everyone. However, what has become increasingly clear is that the idea that we are ‘all in this together’ was, is, and will continue to be untrue. While it is true that everyone has in some way suffered the harms brought by COVID-19, for some these harms have felt deeper and more lasting than for others.

In a bid to explore the range of lived experiences during the initial stages of the pandemic, Teesside University and Middlesbrough Council sought to investigate what people felt was needed for themselves, and their local area, to recover. We conducted 52 in-depth interviews asking about any aspects of the pandemic that interviewees wanted to discuss. The aim was for the Local Authority to use the research as it unfolded, and has since incorporated a number of the research findings and recommendations into their ongoing COVID management and recovery strategy.

Following analysis of over 50 hours of interviews, 8 primary themes emerged: authority, autonomy, community, economy, fairness, framing, future, and wellbeing.

At the core of people’s pandemic outlooks were two key perspectives – 1) in relation to how people saw themselves, and 2) the extent to which they identified with the collective, national-level narratives that ran through the initial stages of the pandemic. Occupying the space between these two, often competing, perspectives was the notion of community: how it was defined and which community/communities people identified with and felt part of. This was often used both positively and negatively, to emphasise those with whom experiences and goals were shared, and also those that it was felt explicitly did not share these. The interviews provided real insight into a wide range of people’s experiences, which are not only useful in building a greater understanding of our recent past but may also be helpful in informing our thinking about the recovery as well as how we respond to future pandemics.

Detached from the National Story

The idea that there is a singular, shared experience of the pandemic has left many people feeling left out where their own experiences differ from the prevailing story being told. In Teesside, participants often spoke of how little their lives were understood by those in central government, and that central government made little attempt to build such an understanding:

A lot of [kids here] live with their grandparents or old relatives. And they’re worried about bringing the virus back to the house and killing their grandparents. That's massive…[The government] don't understand the day-to-day life of living in Middlesbrough, especially around this area. And now they’re going to come in and tell us what’s what?” (Male, Black African, 51-64: TS1)

Some felt that a national message excluded them as they did not see themselves as part of a shared national identity:

“The government make it [the pandemic] sound transitionary for the country’s sake, but a lot of people don’t feel part of the country, because that’s our experience. What's happened in our community?” (Female, Pakistani, 31-40: TS3)

Others felt that they had been forgotten within the homogenisation of the story of the pandemic itself, and that the principle narrative of lockdown revolving around takeaway food, binge-watching television, and working from home, simply did not match their own experience. As such, many people spoke of how because their problems were not framed within the wider narrative of the pandemic, they were also excluded in the recovery efforts from it:

“I think that resentment, that's probably arisen as a result of some of these interventions, and…[who] they’re for…that has maybe made people's buy in be a little bit less, than what it could have perhaps been.” (Male, White British, 41-50: TS5)

Losing Control and Mental Health

Perhaps one of the most widely reported issues, and one from which many others stemmed, was the feeling that everything about one’s own life was suddenly (and for some seemingly irretrievably) no longer under their own control. Every single interviewee spoke of their views on suddenly feeling that they had no say in the direction of their own lives. People dealt with this lack of control differently - ranging from grudgingly accepting that this was a necessary sacrifice, to a deeply held sense that there was a fundamental, identity-constituting part of themselves that was being eroded as time moved on.

While there were some for whom the loss of personal freedoms was never justified on any level, most did recognise a wider threat that made this loss necessary even if it was still unpleasant to undergo. Notwithstanding this, nearly everyone that took part in the study reported a decline in either their own mental health or the mental health of others during the pandemic (although there were some who reported their mental health had improved as a result of lockdowns):

“I think the second lockdown is slightly different. I think there's not as much understanding and patience with this second [one]…I won’t support it. Cos I can't. I don't know how much energy I've got left to even do this whole thing.” (Female, White British, 51-64: TS5)

For some, the negative effect of the pandemic on mental health was severe, and clear both in their personal story and the words used to describe it:

“It gets really lonely… I also had a best friend [who] killed himself at the beginning of it all. Yeah, it just goes to show I suppose.” (Female, White British, 18-30: TS1)

Although lockdown and the isolation it brought was felt amongst all of the groups with whom we spoke, this was most deeply felt by the younger members of the study who were more likely to have lives that relied heavily on people outside the home. Younger people were less likely to be employed, co-habiting or in long-term relationships in which they could have the contact with other people that some of the older age groups took for granted.

Looking to the Future

What was also apparent from the people who took part in interviews was that this impact on mental health would not simply be solved by ‘getting back out there’ and removing the thing which caused the deterioration to mental health in the first place. A number of people spoke of anxiety and hesitancy in returning to public areas and mixing with others, and some felt that they needed to recover before they resumed ‘normal’ life:

“I think isolation is a massive one working with young people in the community. I think they’re all very isolated and I think, once it's all over, I think there needs to be massive amounts of effort put into reconnecting people.” (Male, White English, 18-30: TS5)

Throughout COVID-19, so much has been made of the importance of ‘bringing back’ or returning to normal. Arguments will undoubtedly persist about what this means and if this is possible in the future. Yet these arguments often miss the fact that for many, a return to how things were isn’t anything to look forward to while as our research reveals many of the most vulnerable people have been set even further adrift by the pandemic.

Next Steps

Although our study shed light on a number of issues that were important to the local community, we are now taking our study further and conducting more interviews in the area, looking at issues to do with the effect on our relationships, continued mental health, employment and perceptions of safety and risk, post-‘Freedom Day’. There is still much to learn.