COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Saima Afzal

Photo of Saima Afzal.

I’m Saima Afzal and I’ve reported before for the Shiloh Project on the work I do as independent equality, human rights and safeguarding adviser and through my organisation SAS Rights. Alongside this, I’m also a local councillor for Blackburn (Lancashire).

At the moment, my life has just gone, and I am running purely on adrenalin, almost in autopilot mode, really, dealing with non-stop issues relating to the council and to people urgently needing help of various kinds.

Lockdown means my phone is ringing non-stop; or, there are messages on Facebook, WhatsApp, email…

I am contacted every day about safeguarding cases. I have six on the go, these are the priority as they are all families in crisis. 

Among the things I’m doing – mostly by phone – are: ensuring residents understand the hospital visiting and chaplaincy guidelines; formulating and disseminating advice on fasting at Ramadan and ensuring this is from accurate sources, I need to explain clearly to those who ask for my advice, in a language they understand, who is exempt and how to fast safely at a time when many people’s physical and mental health is compromised; assisting community members who are stranded overseas (I am mindful that dual UK-Pakistani citizens may not qualify for help in returning to the UK); passing on approved advice regarding funeral arrangements (such as on washing the body of the deceased and negotiating restrictions on attendance in line with COVID-19 regulations); coordinating my own volunteering activities and ensuring all SAS Rights volunteers I am responsible for take steps to guard against fraud and other crimes that are on the rise. I am responding to council and resident related issues such as fly tipping, myths relating to G5 towers, or financial queries relating to business grants. These are many and exhausting; as one query is resolved, another arises.

The work of SAS Rights and other local groups has also skyrocketed in a positive way, in that communities and small organisations are coming together more to assist vulnerable people: by facilitating food parcels, stepping up to assist with telephone check-ins and conversations… Creative contact and conversation (including by Zoom and WhatsApp) are welcomed and encouraged. I know I must play my part in these tough times to make sure I am helping to alleviate isolation, helping the most vulnerable and to ensure that the mental health and wellbeing of not just individuals but also of the community remains positive and buoyant. I must admit, I can’t say I am bored!

I see my son and my grand-daughter but I’m missing my mum terribly. She is in a vulnerable category and I am not allowed to see, let alone hug her.

When I can, I try to motivate whoever I can and celebrate the NHS and other key workers. (In the pictures you see me making signs in my garden. My neighbours are doing the same in their gardens). I have some crazy-fun instruments that normally my granddaughter plays with, but every Thursday we are putting those to good use to make an almighty racket for the NHS and all key workers out there providing vital support and services.

My son, a small independent filmmaker, has really helped us capture our first co-ordinated applause, he did this using his drone. I have attached a link so everyone can enjoy the racket we made!

I’m also working on a couple of fundraisers. One is for safeguarding support and we are nearly at 50% of our initial fundraising target. Please see this link should anyone wish to assist with contributions.

The second project  is one for the long term, once COVID-19 Lockdown rules are lifted. This one is designed to bring love and fun into people’s lives and it’s my version of continuing community cohesion via ‘speed dating’, whereby pairs of people from our community are brought together to learn more about each other. I firmly believe that good things happen when people connect and understand one another better. Not being disturbed by difference but learning to celebrate diversity is a step that will make us the kind of community we want to be. Maybe something good can be harnessed from this crisis and make us a more connected, mindful, caring community.

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