Events Walthamstow

The forgotten women who fought Covid-19

A new exhibition celebrates a group of women who saved lives during the pandemic despite not setting foot in hospital, writes Esther Freeman

From left; Ain Satar, Averil Pooten Watan, Saira Mir
From left; Ain Satar, Averil Pooten Watan, Saira Mir (credit Elizabeth Dalziel)

There is a group of women who, during the Covid-19 pandemic, saved lives. Yet none of them stepped foot inside a hospital.

Remember winter 2019/20, when you first heard of that virus in some place called Wuhan? By February, it was in Italy, and people weren’t allowed to leave their homes. I saw an Italian friend and asked after her family. “Well my grandma doesn’t go out much anyway,” she said. She was smiling, so I smiled back. I wasn’t sure what else to do.

Then things got real. Scientists jumped up and down waving proverbial red flags. The government dithered. Boris Johnson boasted about shaking hands with people on a coronavirus ward. If he was attempting to calm things, it failed. There was panic buying and an obsession with toilet roll. On 23rd March 2020, the country went into lockdown.

Among the chaos of those last days before lockdown, behind the doomsday headlines and bare supermarket shelves, I noticed something else happening. My WhatsApp groups, normally concerned with the wrangling of the Labour Party, were now filled with chats about mutual aid.

Posts went up on Facebook for experienced sewers to join something called a “scrub hub”. I saw a friend on her bike, declaring: “Can’t stop, I’m dropping off donations for the foodbank.”

Something extraordinary was happening, and women seemed to be driving it. I knew that unless there was a conscious effort otherwise, the story of the Covid-19 pandemic would be dominated by the things that rich, white men did. The amazing things unfolding from women in our community would get forgotten. I decided to not let that happen.

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With support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, I’ve worked with a team of oral history volunteers to record women’s stories from the pandemic. Some call themselves activists, but others are simply retired tax inspectors or former teachers. All stepped up to support their communities in some way.

This summer my exhibition at The Mill will share some of their stories: the amazing Saira Begum Mir from the foodbank PL84U Al Suffa who, despite dealing with the loss of both of parents to Covid-19, kept the community fed; Averil Pooten Watan, who helped organise a pop-up vaccination clinic for undocumented migrants unable to get the vaccine through traditional routes, many of whom worked in care homes and were terrified of passing the virus on to their vulnerable clients; Ain Satar, a mutual aid organiser, who ensured people got medicines, groceries, legal help and more.

These stories are a sample from our larger collection, archived at the Bishopsgate Institute. They represent a fraction of the stories that exist out there, still untold. While we “clapped for carers” we’ve never properly thanked these volunteers – the neighbours who helped neighbours. This exhibition is our attempt to do that.

Beyond Medicine: A Social History of Women and Pandemics is on at The Mill in Coppermill Lane, Walthamstow, until 16th July. Further stories feature on the Rebel Women podcast, available wherever you listen.

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