The following post was provided by the Association of British Credit Unions Limited (ABCUL), World Council's direct member organization in the United Kingdom.
Credit unions are proving themselves to be an essential frontline service for struggling local communities in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Rob Shearing, CEO of Wolverhampton City Credit Union.
Shearing said staff and directors of the not-for-profit community bank which serves people who live or work in a Wolverhampton postcode area had managed to ‘keep the ship afloat’ under the most difficult circumstances the organization had faced in its 17-year history.
"Like so many hundreds of grassroots organizations serving Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire, the pandemic has presented our organisation with a massive challenge," said Shearing. “First, we sustained severe staff shortages with team members having to self- isolate or recover from COVID-19 symptoms. We took the decision early on to close our Worcester Street branch to the public to keep us all safe and set up staff to work from home. From a health and safety point of view, closing the branch was a no-brainer. But our most vulnerable members - especially those who do not have bank accounts - depend heavily on staff to access their cash or to do routine things like check balances and transfer money."
Shearing said member access to technology has proven to be an issue, like it has for credit unions worldwide.
“While the vast majority of members bank online with us, a number do not have access to laptops or tablets or IT know-how and depend on staff in the branch to help them with loan applications. So our first priority has been to protect some of our most vulnerable members to make sure they have access to their cash. Staff have helped to talk through with members how to apply for loans via post," said Shearing. “We’ve seen a rise in numbers of members registering for online banking and we’ve produced video tutorials help people get started. In the last month alone, we saw an increase of 104 per cent on the previous year in bank transfers conducted online. We now plan to talk to members who are struggling to get online to find out what would help them to do so."
Even in a developed nation like the UK, Shearing said the need to upgrade digital access has been exposed by COVID-19.
“The pandemic has revealed to us the disadvantages caused by the ‘digital divide’. A laptop or a tablet is no longer a luxury, it’s absolutely essential for daily living, especially if you have kids who need home schooling or if you need to book a delivery slot because you’re shielding," said Shearing.
Despite that, the communities Wolverhampton City Credit Union serves are stepping up to confront the crisis.
"Overall, I think the city of Wolverhampton and the surrounding district of South Staffordshire have risen to the challenge of the pandemic fantastically. There’s no faulting the community spirit, the kindness and the dedication of people," said Shearing. "The credit union is committed to working as closely as we can with local government, business and voluntary sector partners to address some of the fault, lines of poverty, over-indebtedness and the digital divide to help people through this crisis and beyond.”