WHEN the lockdown started, I offered to co-ordinate a mutual aid group for my council ward. Covid-19 mutual aid groups were springing up everywhere, and I thought that my project-management skills would come in handy. I expected to be co-ordinating about 20 people. We have more than 200 registered volunteers.
A mutual aid group is a simple idea: a community organising to help its own people. We don’t do anything exciting: we pop to the shops for people, walk their dogs, and pick up their parcels, and, in one case, rush to the vet with an injured cat. We are careful to have processes that don’t leave people open to scammers and impostors; so, nobody pays until their shopping is on the doorstep. We pay attention to hygiene. We are not health workers or social workers, we are just helpful neighbours.
Mutual aid is an old idea whose time has come. At any one time, any of us could get sick and need someone to pop to the shops for us. You can be a volunteer one day and need help the next — in fact, our very first call was for a volunteer who had fallen off her bike and needed some paracetamol. There was none in the chemist, but one person donated, another couriered, and, within an hour, she had her pain relief.
OUR group is mutual, not hierarchical or charitable. This is good, in that it preserves respect and autonomy. But it has inherent dangers. Safeguarding, data-protection, and functioning structures all need organisation, funding, and decision-makers, and every mutual aid group is negotiating that balance.
The great benefit of mutual aid is speed. We were fetching shopping for people with empty shelves long before the juggernauts of national and local government had manoeuvred themselves into position to do the job “properly”.
We have had calls from frantic people who have been trying for days to get a supermarket delivery slot — not for themselves, but for their elderly relatives. Independent young people with long-term medical conditions find themselves alone, cut off from their usual networks, and they simply have no idea who to ask for help. We find that people are embarrassed about being described as “vulnerable”. We describe them as “neighbours”.
We are not run off our feet, though we have helped some desperate people. We have far more volunteers than vulnerable people for them to serve. Many already have neighbours or friends to help, but there are many who are not as locked-down as they could be, preferring to remain independent and to risk doing their own shopping.
We have slightly fewer calls than I expected, and eight times the number of volunteers. What we have achieved is to reassure a whole community that nobody is alone, nobody is forgotten, and we are genuinely in this together. I have had many messages from people saying, “I don’t need you right now, but it’s nice to know you’re there.”
Our local refugee foodbank had a crisis when it realised that all its usual volunteers were over 70 and self-isolating. I was easily able to connect them with six volunteers, and the foodbank opened as normal, thanks to their help. For me, this raises a question. If so many people want to help their community and are happy to volunteer their time, why was the church foodbank staffed only by one demographic? It is possible that churches and voluntary groups subtly exclude younger people, perhaps by their emphasis on personal connection and geographical network.
The mutual aid group has volunteers in their teens to their sixties. When we set it up, we needed to find a way of working that maximised people’s skills and fitted their many and varied patterns of work and availability. The mutual aid WhatsApp group is a new way of voluntary working, a pool of people that allows individuals to work to their strengths, at times that suit them, without feeling pressured to go further. Churches which struggle to find volunteers would do well to consider replacing the rigid rota pinned to a noticeboard with similar, more flexible approaches.
APART from speed and responsiveness, the greatest contribution of the mutual aid group is to introduce people to their neighbours. People who have walked past each other in the street are now on first-name terms, despite seeing less of each other than ever before. People are chatting away in virtual groups with their neighbours in the flat two floors above.
When all this is over, we will be having street parties: parties that bring together, people of different generations, different backgrounds, and different faiths and beliefs. A sense of community and connection may be one of the few positive outcomes of the appalling tragedy that is Covid-19.
The Revd Anne Bennett is the Team Vicar of Deptford, in south London.
For more information about mutual aid during the Covid-19 pandemic, visit covidmutualaid.org.