#ShiftThePower

Is Covid-19 a leveller?

We hear from Head of BBC Young Reporter and Radar Associate Josie Verghese on whether the Covid-19 really is a leveller.

There has been a lot of talk about Covid-19 lockdown being a leveller for society, as everyone is in the same situation regardless of who they are. What’s your take on that?

At the moment my take is ambiguous – it is and it isn’t. There are clear divides, particularly socially and economically. And, in terms of health, disability and those who are most vulnerable like the elderly there are clear disadvantages and more complicated circumstances but these experiences also conversely provide advantages and insights that perhaps others don’t have. As a ‘glass half full’ person I’m trying to see what those things are, to consider the uniqueness that we all bring to something that is new for us all. For example, from my perspective, being able to do stuff virtually and online actually is a bit of a leveller – as a wheelchair user I’m suddenly not having to think about accessibility. For the last seven weeks I’ve had no worries about whether I can reach the button in the lift or prepare myself to guiltily ask the mum on a busy bus to move her pushchair so I can use the accessible space.  

I also think there is something really interesting around people with disabilities being the leaders in this space already. It is my personal perspective, particularly as I am office-based ordinarily, but many people with long-term conditions do have experience of working from home. I also think the personal vs. professional is often more blurred for those people and so talking about care needs in a work context might be more familiar. In my experience having a disability also means I am used to having to adapt and I perhaps think outside the box more than colleagues about all aspects of my life, and being resilient to experiences that are often out of your control. Out of control, the unknown – do these things sound familiar? This is all of our current lockdown experience right? Perhaps a state that some people are more equipped to deal with than others?

So I think this is actually a real opportunity for everyone to be a bit more open to uncertainty and learn from each other and together in this new norm, and evolving experience. I think there are things that people can learn from those living with disabilities about doing things in a different way – I think inherently my disability means I am a planner and problem-solver as it is necessary in most aspects of my life to be so, but now I am seeing other people perhaps doing some thinking about their own situations with a bit more depth and practicalities than usual.

It’s the same in terms of using technology. Suddenly it is so fundamental to all aspects of our life. That’s always the case for me – I rely on a wheelchair that is charged and fully functional for 12 or so hours a day. And I think that has been the realisation for other people – you rely on things, be it electrical or technological and it is fundamental to your life – if your wifi isn’t working then you’re going to be really debilitated and not be able join in conversations and connect with others.For many young people life dominated by digital devices and interaction is all they’ve ever known.

And perhaps people previously unaffected or unconnected by physical barriers will develop a better understanding of the experience of disabled people. It sounds a bit tongue-in-cheek but this could spark a ‘welcome to our world’ type of conversation; when a certain demographic of people that are often unheard or on the periphery are actually some of the expert voices in this situation.

This is a particularly interesting time for journalism – given the restrictions on movement – more community-generated stories are finding their way onto mainstream media platforms, do you think this will change the way traditional media operates in the long run?

The very nature of the news agenda at the moment is that no one really knows what is coming next and the dominant story is one relevant to us all, globally. And it is such a big story that it is hard to keep on top of it, stressful too. So how do we try and make sense of it all? For me it feels like personal stories have never been more important and powerful than they are right now. People are what we can connect with – to both help explain the stuff we can’t really comprehend and give some relatable context to it, but also to make sure that we are acknowledging those who are so directly, and in so many instances devastatingly, impacted by this. 

But for me I think we need to make sure that it’s not just all about what we’ve lost, but actually: what are the positives too? What are some of the community projects or humorous social media challenges that are helping people live through lockdown? What are the things that we’re doing differently as a result of these circumstances? 

And it isn’t just about the stories being told but how we are telling them. For instance, from a technical point of view, it now seems perfectly normal to have a dodgy live skype interview with a politician on television or for programmes to be broadcast from people’s front room. These are things I’ve been talking to young people about in the work I do with BBC Young Reporter, which at the moment includes us encouraging and supporting young people to share their stories about how coronavirus is uniquely impacting their lives. I’m passionate about storytelling and fundamentally for me it’s about what makes a great story that really matters – it’s not about getting too caught up about the technical aspects. That’s not what I’m interested in. Life in lockdown has taken everything back-to-basics and it is quite refreshing. For me it’s reinforced that storytelling is about someone that’s a good talker, who’s got a unique experience, or an interesting reflection or expertise – from postie to Professor. We all have a story to share. It is the range of voices that matter. It is all about people. That is what seems to be at the forefront of “during coronavirus” journalism. And that’s my kind of journalism.

Also the transparency of what we do is something that’s always been really important to me. The media literacy work I’m involved in is about making it accessible – when I talk to young people about journalism it is about discussing what we do and sharing skills and advice, as we can all do it. Of course, I can share my experience and empower and help young people to share their ideas, but it doesn’t mean to say that I am any better or that I’ve got the stories to tell. We are all levelled again in that sense. Everyone has a story to tell, some people may just need support to tell them. 

Could you tell us a bit more about BBC Young Reporter platform? How do you use the stories? How is coronavirus affecting the lives of these young people?

BBC Young Reporter is a project supporting 11-18 year old’s media literacy and storytelling skills. It is an age group so often not part of the mainstream media – content isn’t produced specifically for or about them. Right now I feel a real responsibility to ensure that their experiences of this moment are documented and amplified amongst the wider noise. We’ve been asking them to upload their experiences and ideas. 

A few of the stories we’ve captured with teenagers talking about their lockdown experiences have been played out on Radio 1’s Newsbeat and featured on BBC News’ website and social media accounts which is brilliant – this is a big tick as that means wider audiences are seeing and hearing them. But actually for me, it’s not just about that and today’s news agenda – it is about capturing this unique moment. I think in a year’s time, or five years’ time, these young people won’t really remember how they felt right now because it is such a rollercoaster and they’ve got so many significant moments that will distract them, so they should capture it right here, right now! It’s like burying a time capsule, this is historic and unprecedented and that will be a story to tell in the future as well as today.

For me the thrill and fascination of working with teenagers is that this is already such a moment of transition in their lives, with them really starting to define themselves as individuals and shaping their futures – doing exams,  leaving school, heading off to university and beginning their working lives. They are inherently living through a time of change and the unknown, and they are now doing so in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. It feels like these strange times will shape their future more than any other generation. 

When we started the BBC Young Reporter coronavirus story platform we expected the majority of stories to have a mental health angle, as this is usually such a key issue for young people with the pressures being put on them around academic performance, struggles with defining their identity and uncertainties about the future. But it actually hasn’t been a dominating theme. Maybe it’s just coincidence but I also wonder whether with the uncertainty around the current situation, and none of us really knowing what the future holds right now, has encouraged young people to stress less about the small stuff. Teachers, educators, parents, politicians – there is a globalness about today’s experiences, literally no one knows which way this is going to go and if you are a teenager going through a transition in your life, thinking about how you fit in to it all, perhaps knowing it is a shared experience is empowering?

The story suggestions we are receiving are also a reminder about the desire for positive news – and the ideas are proving there is a plethora out there. That certainly helps keep me feeling upbeat as I review them from within the four walls of my south London flat – what better way to stay connected to the outside world when I can’t personally be out and about in it!  

So again I ask myself are these extraordinary times a leveller? I’m still ambiguous. I do think it is making us all step back a bit and consider that this is just so much bigger than me, and in doing so savour and be reassured that there is a commonality.  Whilst our experiences might be different we are and can be in it together.

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Josie and her BBC Young Reporter colleagues manage an open access online platform for any 11-18 year old to share a story or suggest an unreported or original idea to the BBC about how their life is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. If you have a story to share, please use it to get in touch.