When the Covid storm struck in March, it swept all before it.

Fear gripped the community, panic buying beset our supermarkets.

Covid ripped through care homes, seizing our most vulnerable.

Hospitals and intensive care units filled to overflowing.

Normal society came to a standstill as businesses shuttered, schools fell silent and the hostelries and meeting places where we gathered to celebrate and socialise closed their doors.

And yet, amidst the Covid hurricane, heroes of the community stepped forward. They ran into the virus fires even as others fled. Nowhere was that more evident than at the hospital frontlines where staff fought a life-or-death battle with the coronavirus at great risk to themselves — and without proper PPE.

But we saw that quiet heroism and defiance too in our care homes and among our domiciliary care workers as well as among those who became the new, and previously under-appreciated, essential workers - the Glider drivers, and supermarket checkout staff, the taxi drivers and posties.

Companies pivoted to meet the surge in demand for PPE, others dug deep to ensure jobs weren't lost, social clubs were converted to emergency relief supply depots, cultural centres to food banks, and, throughout, PIPS, the Samaritans and so many other life-saving charities urged the desolate to hold on.

Those exceptional individuals who led inspired an outpouring of uplifting online entertainment and creativity which ensured the music kept our spirits high. The Féile went virtual, community activists delivered iPads and tablets to the less well-off so that all our children could access online learning and our faith groups brought the gospel out from the cloistered churches to the refugees and asylum seekers in our midst.

Now, as we come to the end of the most testing of years, the Aisling Awards on Thursday 10 December will give our readers a chance to salute the unsung heroes of the pandemic across every section of society and from every corner of Belfast. We will swap the splendour of the Europa Ballroom to living rooms across Belfast but the spirit and the energy of Aisling will be undimmed because its power comes from people not from pomp and ceremony.

Today, with the support of our premier partner Open University, we open nominations for an awards celebration which will enable us, in troubled times, to raise a glass to the champions of community who refused to allow Covid beat us back and to dream of better days ahead. 

Our awards for our Covid heroes cover many fields: Education, Community, Culture & Arts, Business, Sport and more. To nominate from Thursday 29 October, click here.

Together, let's keep hope alive.