It’s an anxious time. The health, social and economic crises caused by coronavirus will cause an enormous – and as yet incalculable – impact, with the threat of global recession. But as the world goes into lockdown to delay the spread and impact of Covid-19, a number of hyper-local mutual aid groups have sprung up, bringing people together on streets, in towns and through social media, to co-operate to help meet emerging social needs on a very local level.
In the context of Covid-19, mutual aid can be running shopping errands, making phone calls, or checking in on neighbours. Alongside public groups, existing groups and charities are ramping up their own support. WhatsApp Groups are being formed to support communities, often on a road by road basis. Facebook groups are being set up to organise co-ordinated foodbank support. Of course there are exceptions, but there is a general sense of people looking out for each other, checking on neighbours and being aware of the needs and safety of the more vulnerable people in communities.
“The extraordinary spread of support networks in the context of the current pandemic is in the very best tradition of self-help and mutual aid,” says Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK. “It is inspiring to see the very technology channels that have been accused of creating echo chambers and undermining democracy adapted by people for local WhatsApp groups, GoogleDocs for participatory planning and Facebook for open membership groups at the local level. At the heart of resilience, whether public health, climate change or disruptive economic conditions, is co-operation and out of this co-operation will come a new spirit for the nation.”
Mr Mayo adds: “To applaud this localism and concern for neighbours and communities, recognising that support for others underpins support by others for you, is not to take away from the urgent national action that is required on matters like food justice. It has been a scandal that families go hungry or have to turn to food banks and now that same moral stain has become a public health emergency. We need national government action, addressing poverty through a shift in resources, to complement this grassroots co-operative renewal.”
Between 2014-2019 the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, saw food bank use increase by 73%; the concern now is that this need will grow exponentially as household income is depleted through illness, businesses closing and gig economy work drying up.
“With the spread of coronavirus we all now face an unprecedented challenge and uncertain future,” says Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust. “It is possible that food banks will face increased demand as people lose income, at the same time as food donations drop or staff and volunteers are unavailable, due to measures rightly put in place to slow the spread of infection. All of this comes when food banks are already dealing with a record level of need for emergency food.” The group that will be hit hardest if schools close is children; school holiday hunger already pushes many families into food poverty and insecurity. If weekday meals are lost, this could have catastrophic consequences.
“We are definitely in need of additional volunteers,” Ms Revie adds. “One of our biggest threats is people becoming unwell and unable to volunteer.”
This call is supported by co-ops, including the Midcounties Co-operative. “Providing support to those volunteers and organisations running food banks is an area where many co-operative societies have provided great help for several years – and where product donations and volunteering support is needed now more than ever,” says Peter Westall, chief values officer at Midcounties. “Customers and members can donate in practically all food stores and, as importantly, can also volunteer to help with local food banks.”
Alongside helping those who are helping others, Midcounties is considering and is continuing to review how it can best support the most vulnerable and those who are most ‘at risk’ in local communities. “All consumer co-ops, including ourselves, have taken direct action to do that – whether introducing specific times for senior citizens and the vulnerable to shop, or by ensuring each food store is keeping an eye on their own regular shoppers who fit that category,” says Mr Westall.
He adds: “It’s comforting to see existing community organisations working together in synergy to benefit the community, alongside the emergence of hyper-local mutual aid that are great examples of community self-help: individuals coming together to play their part in meeting local social needs. We know that many colleagues and members are doing just that.
“It is a small measure of comfort that the solution so many have turned to in recent days is completely in line with co-operatives and co-operators across the world, in particular, the values of social responsibility and caring for others, that are needed now, more than ever.”
In the UK, to find out more about volunteering at the Trussell Trust, click here. You can find lists of mutual aid groups in the UK at covidmutualaid.org/local-groups/ and freedomnews.org.uk/covid-19-uk-mutual-aid-groups-a-list/