Community Plan - Section 4:

Social capital in action for emergency response: COVID-19

'Disasters destroy physical and human capital; social capital is less tangible, but it is the only form of capital which is renewed and enhanced during the emergency period. It is social capital that serves as the primary basis for a community response…'

When the first cases of a novel coronavirus were detected in some Chinese provinces, no one thought that a pandemic would have accelerated and reshaped the history of the entire world in a matter of few months. Most countries were forced to introduce lock down measures, travel bans, testing and contact tracing systems to fight against the virus and to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed.

Along with the economic recession, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought health inequalities into sharp focus. People facing the greatest deprivation and health inequalities are experiencing a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 as well as increased likelihood of death. The wider governmental and societal measures to control the spread of the virus (including the lockdown and social distancing) also have a greater impact on those already experiencing inequality. The pandemic is, therefore, exposing the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by certain vulnerable groups, including BAME communities, elderly and disabled people.

In Merton, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed at the beginning of March when Wimbledon College took the decision to close as a number of staff were self-isolating due to being close contacts of that confirmed case. Since then some of our residents have fallen seriously ill and some others have sadly died both within the community and care homes. Merton Council and our partners have supported both a cohort of very vulnerable people identified on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and households hit by financial hardship. Council together with BAME Voice are undertaking a joint project to speak to local people to better understand the 'Lived Experience' and the local impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities and other vulnerable groups. The information gained and recommendations made will be used to better inform future decisions aimed at reducing health and wider inequalities and the impact of the virus.

But the council and partners couldn't have mitigated the local impact of COVID-19 without the collaboration and commitment of our residents.

Thousands of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds have worked flat out alongside the council, the NHS, and the charity and voluntary sector to deliver food parcels and keep in touch with our most vulnerable residents.

 These grassroots and informal networks have increased social capital across the borough with potentially long-lasting benefits for health and equality. These networks feature in the new Community Plan because we want to see them flourish in the post-pandemic world.

Although the curve of the virus has flattened in most countries, fresh outbreaks seem to appear again. Local communities will play an instrumental role in the next months and years in defeating the coronavirus. Residents will have to work together and be resilient to avoid future outbreaks and enhance recovery at the same time. Our own ability to survive is intertwined and depends on our neighbours now more than ever, and social infrastructure will be needed to meaningfully bring down barriers and eliminate inequalities. The new Community Plan is a call for businesses and individuals to engage with any existing social infrastructure, or create new ones, to bring people together throughout the pandemic and afterwards, and increase social capital across the borough as a whole. Partners and Merton Council couldn't achieve this without our residents, and the pandemic has confirmed this.

Spotlight on...

Strength in numbers with the Merton Community Response Hub

Days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the nation into lockdown at the start of the coronavirus crisis in mid-March, a volunteer taskforce to help isolated households and those at risk from Covid-19 was being swiftly mobilised in Merton.

So by the time we were all under orders to stay at home, with the vulnerable shielded from the outside world, a heroic display of teamwork from the voluntary, community and faith sector organisations across the borough meant the Merton Community Response Hub was ready to offer vital support to local people in need.

Merton Voluntary Service Council (MVSC), the umbrella body for voluntary and charity groups in the borough, set up the Community Response Hub with the backing of key partners – Merton Council, Healthwatch and Merton Clinical Commissioning Group, as well as a cross-section of local voluntary organisations.

By the end of May, more than 800 vulnerable residents had directly approached the Hub for support and nearly 600 concerned individuals had requested help for isolated parents, neighbours and/or friends. The Hub had also delivered 479 emergency care parcels to local households and nearly 700 volunteers had offered to help others.

Many of those who put themselves forward as volunteers were partnered with key charity groups, including Age UK Merton, Wimbledon Guild, the Commonside Trust, Merton and Morden Guild and Friends In St Helier (FISH).

Volunteering was also coordinated more widely with Merton Mutual Aid and other local organisations who mobilised volunteers at speed to support residents in need of help.

Volunteers were assigned to supporting people in their community through tasks such as shopping, prescription/medication collection, dog walking, posting letters, topping up pre-payment cards or just making a friendly phone call.

Rhiannon Larkman, Operations Manager at Age UK Merton, was one of the people from a range of organisations involved in setting up the Community Response Hub. 

Rhiannon said: "It has been incredibly rewarding, especially at its busiest time. Most of the call handlers and Hub managers have been council staff, mainly from the library service, as well as some volunteers. We've all found it so worthwhile just to be able to help and reassure people."

People contacting the Community Response Hub for help, or to request it for someone else, were usually referred to the appropriate local charity to get the right support for their needs following their call or email.

Rhiannon describes one memorable call to the Hub: "It has been a very worrying time for some people and one Saturday a woman in her 70s rang up in tears. She was self-isolating with her husband, but they needed help with getting prescriptions and food.

"I was able to reassure her that we could help and I referred her for on-going support. She was so relieved that she wasn't on her own and said that we had 'made her day'. I felt it was wonderful to have made such a difference."

Simon Shimmens, CEO of MVSC, paid tribute to the combined strength of the organisations involved in the running of the Hub. He said: "It has been a brilliant team effort and everyone adopted the principle of – 'the answer is yes, now what is the question?'.

"It has demonstrated that we have proper partnership working in Merton, and we'll continue to be there for people who need our support."

Following the success of the Community Response Hub, Merton Council wants to continue the model of a single point of contact within the community to support vulnerable or isolated residents.
The council aims to commission a pilot 'like for like' service to be run by the voluntary sector. Once set up, further work will be undertaken with the wider voluntary sector to help shape and design the future service.

If you are isolated and need support, or know someone that does, please email or ring 020 8685 2272.

Meet the inspirational teenager behind Merton Mutual Aid

When Zak Dada's A-Levels were cancelled as the nation went into lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, he decided to use his new-found spare time to help Merton residents in need.

Eighteen-year-old Zak should have been preparing for examinations in English Literature, History and Politics, but instead he founded Merton Mutual Aid, a grassroots network of nearly 3,000 volunteers supporting those isolated or vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis.

His story was particularly inspirational because for a month of his volunteering work, his Muslim faith meant he was fasting during daylight hours for Ramadan.

The community network linked volunteers with those in need, under the banner of 'neighbours helping neighbours'. It also worked with other local organisations, including Wimbledon Foodbank and the Dons Local Action group.

Zak's role at Merton Mutual Aid involved him:

  • Overseeing more than 70 WhatsApp messaging groups, managing requests for support and helping manage the social media channels along with a team
  • Managing teams behind hundreds of collections each week for Wimbledon Foodbank, hospitals and care homes.
  • Managing a Funds & Grants team, looking after seven local groups in need of funding and securing more than £10,000 in just one week.
  • Helping the Dons Local Action group by finding them more volunteers, supporting their Keep Kids Connected campaign against digital poverty for children by contacting schools and groups for donations of laptops and tablets and sourcing thousands of products from companies wanting to donate to South West London hospitals.

Zak, who lives in Wimbledon, said: "I was meant to be completing my examinations, but when they were cancelled I decided to use my time for good. It was made increasingly difficult when I was partaking in Ramadan fasting as a member of the Muslim faith.

"We help people whether they are a fit 20-year-old or an elderly person with underlying health conditions, espousing the belief of 'today you, tomorrow me.' I have been amazed at how much we have been able to achieve."

A typical day at the height of the pandemic could see Zak personally delivering cooked food to vulnerable residents alongside his administrative work. Those meals were made by a range of chefs, including volunteers at the Shree Ghanapathy Temple in Wimbledon, the Old Wimbledonians Association and Senthil (pictured), an elder in the local Tamil community.

Other work has been more varied: One day an NHS staff member asked Zak to organise a van to collect pallets of donations from Lush cosmetics to deliver to St George's Hospital. He organised a large delivery van to deliver the donations for free the following day, as well as overseeing their collection and distribution.

Zak sourced thousands of travel-size shampoo and conditioners for local hospitals, as well as 11,000 cans of Kombucha tea. Merton Mutual Aid funding was also used to buy large hand sanitiser containers, which a volunteer in Morden decanted into smaller bottles to go into food parcels.

The hundreds of local people helped by Merton Mutual Aid included Brian, who said: "I would be totally lost without Merton Mutual Aid and the food they bring is amazing!"

You can contact Merton Mutual Aid at For further details please visit their website


Tackling food poverty with Merton's Community Fridge Network

The Covid-19 pandemic left many people in the borough struggling to buy or access food, but the Merton Community Fridge Network harnessed a range of organisations to distribute surplus or donated food to those in need.

A food distribution hub was quickly established by Merton Council and Merton College at the college's site in Morden, where it has bulk storage facilities as well as freezers and fridges.

Food was brought to the hub, which was staffed by Merton Council employees, by the London Food Alliance (LFA) for distribution across the borough. The LFA was a partnership between London's three biggest food redistribution charities (City Harvest, FareShare and The Felix Project), to provide an emergency response service for the capital during the coronavirus crisis.

The food came from surplus stock, donated by wholesalers, manufacturers, restaurants, supermarkets and other businesses.

A variety of local organisations worked together to distribute the food, including Sustainable Merton, Wimbledon Foodbank, The Wimbledon Guild, The Dons Local Action Group, Kommunity Kitchen, the Salvation Army, Commonside Development Trust, Friends in St. Helier, the Polish Family Association (PYZA) and Tooting and Mitcham Football Club.

The co-ordination of Merton's Community Fridge Network was led by the council's Public Health Department working with Adult Social Care, Environmental Health and Leisure, MVSC and local Clinical Commissioning Groups.

It actually 'borrowed' the name from environmental charity Sustainable Merton, which launched its Merton Community Fridge project in May as a long-term initiative to tackle food poverty and waste in the borough.

As part of the distribution network, Sustainable Merton opened Merton's Community Fridge at Morden Baptist Church for residents living in food poverty to collect food parcels each week. Volunteer Fridge Friends also delivered parcels to those who were shielding or self-isolating.

Diana Sterck, CEO of Sustainable Merton, said: "This has been a very fast moving project and the partners have coordinated their approach to make sure food got to those who were most in need. I was delighted that the 'Merton's Community Fridge' name was used as it is so important that we ensure a long term sustainable approach to tackling food poverty and reducing food waste".

If you want to volunteer or donate fresh flood please visit their website, or email them at


Providing food, tech and more with the Dons Local Action Group

A group of AFC Wimbledon fans with time on their hands when football matches were cancelled at the start of the UK coronavirus crisis set up a couple of food collection stalls in Wimbledon, with the aim of distributing the donations to local people in need.

Little did they know that within two months, the Dons Local Action Group would amass a remarkable army of 1,000 volunteers, manning 22 collection points across three boroughs, delivering 2,500 food parcels a week, as well as more than 300 laptops and tablets for children without an electronic device of their own.

Spokesman Xavier Wiggins said at the launch of the initiative: "We're just ordinary football fans who want to reach people who are housebound, or simply too frightened to open their front doors. We want them to know there are friends out there they can depend on.

"Coronavirus has forced matches to be cancelled across the country. With no games to go to, this feels like a really positive way of spending the spare time many of us have all suddenly got."

The Dons Local Action Group, working with the AFC Wimbledon Foundation, soon involved supporters and members of other local sports clubs, including the Old Rutlishians Association, Tooting and Mitcham Football Club, Wimbledon Rugby Club and the Old Wimbledonians Association.

Many of the volunteers were not interested in football, but just wanted to help their community out in a time of need – including 30-year-old Usaama Kaweesa, who lives in Phipps Bridge. Despite working full-time as a recruitment officer for an education charity, he helped at weekend food collection stalls in Mitcham and Morden.

He said: "I don't follow football and thought it amazing that football supporters were doing this. I'm no stranger to volunteering and I heard about the Dons Local Action Group when I was looking into how I could help out during the crisis.

"I've been really humbled by the generosity of the people donating. It's not just been what they don't want, but high quality products. Overall it's been an effective and impressive community campaign."

Usaama has given further backing to coronavirus support work in the borough by completing a 30k three-day run fundraiser around his 30th birthday. He ran 10km a day for his daily exercise and raised just over £1,000 for Merton Giving, which launched a Coronavirus Fund to help affected local organisations.

There are many other volunteers working with the Dons Local Action Group with similar stories to tell. Xavier said: "People across Merton pulled together – not just Wimbledon fans, we picked up plenty of others on the way. Some got involved because of our club, but it grew quickly as there are so many good people in the area. We're a fan-owned football club soon to move into a fantastic stadium, and it's right that we're taking action at the heart of our community.

"It's not all been selfless for the volunteers though as you find that you are helping yourself by helping others. It gave a real purpose for those with no work during the pandemic, so it has been good for the soul as well as helping society.

"It wouldn't have been possible without the generosity of the shoppers as well as donations from kind-hearted businesses. Merton Council also helped by not bogging us down in red tape and just letting us get on with it."

To contact the Dons Local Action group, email