Inside the Rise of Covid-19 Mutual Aid

When Boris Johnson issued a UK lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, he said leaving the house “to provide care or to help a vulnerable person” is allowed to carry on. An informal network of 2.5 million volunteers are doing just that

The Coronavirus crisis has put a halt to much of the UK economy, but behind closed doors life continues on. From the living rooms of suburban bungalows to bedrooms that catch the evening sun at the top of tower blocks, lonely people are still lonely, sick people sick, and many elderly in need of a helping hand. These situations have been worsened by the virus’ spread. Hearteningly, the response in communities across the country has been rapid.

Informal networks of neighbours have clustered together in mere days to strengthen the ties that bind us all together. They act under an umbrella term—Covid-19 Mutual Aid—which refers to a constellation of local groups which started out in Lewisham, south-east London. Describing itself as “a group of volunteers supporting local community groups”, the movement is part shiny new entity, and part switchboard encouraging people to team up with existing ones such as Age UK, Acorn or food banks doing crucial work in their area.

Anna Vickerstaff, co-founder of the Covid-19 Mutual Aid movement and a campaigner with 350.org, says the group was started because everyone will be affected by Coronavirus, but some will feel the impact more than others. She was invited to join a Lewisham group’s Facebook page, and set about extrapolating a loose framework from it that could be replicated nationwide. “I pulled together a website, a social page and Twitter, but then sort of overnight we'd gone from a handful of local groups to almost 100,” she says. 

Most of these local groups organise themselves over Facebook, with individual WhatsApp groups then set-up for areas as large as a ward or as small as an individual street. Individuals fill out a Google Form with their skills and anything else they can bring to the table, like a car, and the ability to drive it. In Hackney, as an example, epidemiologists have been feeding in to make sure the group have the latest info informing their guidance, alongside strict adherence to national government advice.

We've seen real generosity and community spirit 

“If you go to any part of Hackney there's going to be people with so many different skills on any given road,” says Aviah Day, a community organiser in east London. “From teachers, to epidemiologists to doctors, nurses. This has actually worked out to be like an audit of all the different skills you could have on any given road, on any given ward that lend themselves to something like this.”

Some of the groups are as microscopic in focus as a single road. “I think mine is run by a bored mum,” one volunteer tells me, “and only covers my street and three others.” But their hyper-local size belies a national scope. “When I last checked this morning there were 2,950 groups registered across the UK,” Vickerstaff says. “And we're estimating membership of those groups—based on calculations we did yesterday—is about 2.5 million.”

Providing this sprawling web of people some semblance of coherence is no easy task. The Mutual Aid groups represent a kind of scaffolding constructed rapidly to supplement a faltering social safety net. The need is crucial: a lockdown is a perilous time for the vulnerable, with grim forewarnings coming this week from Spain where soldiers have found elderly people abandoned and dead in their homes under the lockdown.

A decade of austerity in the UK has left social care services and local councils with few resources, and ministers have been scrambling to find solutions to plug the gap in this crisis. The Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has laid out plans to draft in the army to support councils in delivering food parcels to the vulnerable, revealing the first food parcel on Twitter last night, while Whitehall and Council planners are reportedly gearing up to ask Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups to join the effort in a more official capacity.

But while the move may have been briefed to national media, word has been slower in reaching volunteers directly. “We haven't had any conversations with the government about how they're expecting that to work, there's been no contact whatsoever,” Vickerstaff says. “I think what we've seen is a real generosity and community spirit in people's willingness to support the vulnerable people and I think that that will continue in various forms—maybe this—but what I would say is that I think it's questionable that the government are having to rely on existing volunteer networks so that they don't seem to have come up with a suitable response themselves.

“And actually when the government is failing to support precarious workers or freelance workers with adequate financial security through the Coronavirus, it's a little bit strange that they're then expecting them to volunteer for free to deliver the social care that the government are failing to provide.” There have since been reports that the government is due to announce a package of support for self-employed workers whose earnings tot up to £50,000 or less, which could go some way in making up for this. But Vickerstaff is clear that grievances wouldn’t overcome peoples’ desire to help: “I think the spirit and enthusiasm of the mutual aid groups will engage with this work,” she says, “but there's definitely a question on why the government is having to rely on voluntary networks to make this happen.”

The relationship between mutual aid groups and more official local organisations remains opaque, with some people on the ground keen to subsume themselves into their local council. “In Hackney it hasn't been too bad but there have been some people who are like, ‘basically the council just need to do everything’ and I'm like, ‘well they probably don't have the resources to do it all’,” says Day. 

An advantage of autonomous volunteer networks can be that there’s no red tape. “At the end of the day there's nothing just to stop us printing off a few leaflets right here right now and putting them through people's doors,” Day continues. “And if that's got to someone a bit quicker than waiting for the council to sort through all their bureaucracy, it's better to just kind of get on with it rather than wait. There are some things the council can do and be helpful for but that just seems like if we've got loads of bodies right here, right now. Let's get on with it.”

Elsewhere mutual aid groups have benefited from ties to local government. Day points to councillors she’s worked with in the past who have themselves leafletted, simply acting as concerned citizens with a little extra information to provide. And councillors make up many of the volunteers in another mutual aid group. “As we are mainly Councillors and Labour party members we are naturally already deeply rooted in our communities,” says Lisa Brown, a volunteer organiser in Carlisle. “We were lucky to be able to draw on resources and contacts to get proper systems set up quickly and start helping people almost straight away.”

She’s been encouraged by the results she’s seen on the ground. “The response has been phenomenal, we have over 150 volunteers signed up already, and we have been able to help some people who just wouldn't have anyone else to turn to. It's upsetting to think that some people could be left at home frightened about the situation with no support, so we are doing our best to get the word out there.

We looked at the principle of mutual aid rather than charity, and thought it would be good to set up a system where neighbours can support each other

“One of the first people we helped last week said, ‘On Friday last week, I had been checking my letter box for a few days hoping to see a leaflet advising me of a support group in my local area and no such leaflets materialised. I was getting very concerned because I needed to collect a prescription from my GP surgery, but I couldn’t go and get it. I cannot go out and have nobody to help me, I cannot express my gratitude strongly enough that somebody could take time out of their day and put themselves at risk to help me. Thank you to Lisa and your team, you have helped to make what could have been a very big problem just disappear with no stress and no worries, you are all brilliant.’”

Ultimately, what binds these distinct groups together from Carlisle to Hackney, and Belfast to the Highlands is the notion of mutual aid itself. Thinking back (only a week or so) to the groups’ genesis, Vickerstaff recalls how, “We looked at the principle of mutual aid rather than charity, and thought it would be good to set up a system where neighbours can support each other, build community and check in on the most vulnerable during the outbreak.”

It’s a model that’s well established in the world of community organising she comes from. “It comes from a radical history of care,” she explains, “which shouldn't be a radical concept but in a society which has become quite individualistic over the last few years, it has become a radical notion. Historically it's a really important recognition that concepts of charity can lead to ideas of ‘saviourism’. [Mutual aid] is much more about building solidarity, building community and collective responsibility than it is the handing down of things.” 

It’s in describing this that Vickerstaff nails what feels like the sense of hope behind this surge of millions of volunteers across the country. It’s not only about the individual acts of kindness they’re doing every day, but about the sense of togetherness those acts leave in their wake. “People don't need saving, they need community,” Vickerstaff says.