Our Hostel's Response to Covid-19? Kerry Barnett!

Meet the wonder woman keeping 140 residents safe at our Hostel


  • Auckland
  • Community
April 21, 2020 Angela Barnett

What do you do when you have to socially distance during a lockdown when you live in a hostel with over 140 other people? You get Kerry Barnett on the case, that’s what.

Kerry Barnett (or ‘Barnitt’ if you’re speaking London) is the first to admit, “It’s not very quiet with me in the room!” but when you’ve got somebody in charge of a hostel full of people from all over the world, which runs 24/7 in the middle of the city, ‘not very quiet’ is exactly what you want. Especially during a crisis.

When news that COVID-19 Stage 3 was quickly followed by a Stage 4 nationwide lockdown in New Zealand, Kerry called an emergency meeting in the YWCA hostel carpark. Residents were naturally full of questions and uncertainty, which Kerry quickly sorted with answers and calm direction. And volume. One hostel resident, Laure Giraud, was standing in the carpark and said Kerry’s voice “carried far, and that's good, because we observed the social distancing (see photo below of social distancing marking in the carpark), making our group of residents a scattered swarm.” After telling everyone she loved them, Kerry shared a small joke, as is her way to keep spirits up, then clearly listed the plan of action. For those who could leave before lockdown—if they were lucky enough to get flights out or had smaller accommodation to move into—they had to move fast, pack bags and go. For the rest who were staying, the rules were very simple. Everyone was to stay two metres apart at all times and that included the TV rooms and hallways, with no more than six people at the same time in the kitchen, following a roster. Washing hands regularly and using the hydroalcoholic gel provided was imperative, and coughs must be into elbows. With no exceptions!

Kerry is the kind of person you want in any kind of emergency. Quick to make decisions, she leads from the front. She also announced that night she would move into the hostel during the crisis to help everyone through it. “Act like you have COVID-19!” Kerry said to the group. “And the most important thing is that you all feel safe.” She then introduced residents to a crisis and disaster management specialist, Catherine Cooper, who has been shipped in for the duration of lockdown.

Safety has always been at the top of Kerry’s list, with or without a pandemic. She drills into her staff, “This is people’s home. We make it safe!”

But Kerry also understands the human need for connection and fun. The hostel car park has been set up for sports, games and activities. Kerry procured a table tennis table from some neighbours that’s now in the courtyard—and conveniently the only way to play is two metres apart—plus she found an exercise bike, with a strict wipe down rules between use. There have been cricket matches in the car park and frisbee throwing into old bathroom cabinets lined up on a deck. She’s also installed a wellness wall with chalk for people to write up messages and says it made her so happy to see people engaging and connecting with the wall. “I’m in a bubble with 140 others. It’s like herding cats but we are really trying to look after our well-being and each other.”

This is people’s home. We make it safe!

Kerry and her staff even threw a two-metre-apart car park party to get together and celebrate all the essential workers out there in the city doing their bit to fight COVID-19. “Be kind,” is another of her mantras.

She’s a doer, she makes things happen, and if anyone says ‘no, too hard’, she’s known to say, “Load of tosh, there must be a way!”

Every day, Kerry is doing numerous runs to various supermarkets for residents. When I called her to talk about this piece, she was driving somebody to the hospital to get their cancer treatment. She and her team are knocking on all residents’ doors every day to check-in and ‘I’m fine’ from behind a closed door is all that’s required.

The hostel team also set up a private Facebook page, ‘The Great YWCA Lockdown, helping residents feel connected and well informed. The page shows residents announcing recipes that only require three ingredients, jokes, memes, activities, and mental health tips. Bingo was played live over the Facebook page as well as an Easter service. There have been requests for virtual physio consultancies and some swapping: ‘baking paper for some freshly baked chocolate nut cookies, anyone’

Kerry, in her own words, ‘gives a f**k, every single day’. She is funny, colourful, clever, very generous with her time and is exactly what all the residents need to keep calm in a crisis. But if you tell Kerry Barnett any of that you can guess what she’ll say (not very quietly).

“Load of Tosh!”


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