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LONDON–On March 22, 34-year-old Uber Eats courier Laurence Smith headed to his local Tesco supermarket in Catford, a district of southeast London. He planned to purchase food on behalf of a paramedic during a special shopping hour prior to opening, which had been set aside for National Health Service staff. But he was shocked to see long lines snaking around aisles. “Everybody in the store except me was a health worker,” he recalls. “It’s likely that many had just come off shifts lasting continuous days and were exhausted. There was little fresh produce available for them. These people are at the front line of this country’s fight against the coronavirus. If we can’t even protect them, what will happen to the rest of us?”
A few hours later, Smith received permission from a church to use its community center as a collection hub for donations of food and other household essentials. After reaching out to his local mutual aid group in the borough of Lewisham, he was flooded with offers to drop off and deliver items to NHS workers as well as the vulnerable, isolated, and elderly. In addition, members of the group contributed over 10,000 pounds (U.S.$12,400) to a fund that Smith established in conjunction with the University Hospital Lewisham and a catering company. This money is being used to provide a free food box delivery service to any NHS worker in the area who is in financial distress. “This has been surreal–just 40 hours ago, we didn’t even have a building,” says Smith. He has also consolidated a network of 45 couriers who assist him in sending necessities to those in need who are currently in self-isolation.
Now boasting close to 5,500 members, the COVID-19 mutual aid group in Lewisham was the first to be established in London. This took place a day before U.K. chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance proposed the now widely ridiculed idea of building “herd immunity” in order to combat the pandemic—keeping public gathering places open and intentionally allowing the disease to spread—as opposed to the more-stringent measures being adopted all across the world. Prior to this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson trumpeted the fact that he would carry on greeting hospital patients with handshakes. As of Monday, 22,141 people in the U.K. have tested positive for the virus—including Johnson himself—while 1,408 patients have died.
As the government continues to come under fire for its clumsy and lackadaisical response to a panoply of problems, from insufficient testing to the paucity of ventilators and medical capacity, communities around the U.K. have taken matters into their own hands.
Starting in mid-March, tens of thousands of people began joining local clusters, which are loosely guided by an ad hoc umbrella organization, COVID-19 Mutual Aid U.K. Each of these groups serves a specific area ranging in size, from the length of a street to an entire borough. By the time Johnson finally announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, volunteers had already printed and distributed leaflets describing all the types of community-led help on offer, and were picking up requests through phone lines they had set up for those requiring aid. Grocery shopping, dog walking, online pub quizzes, and Zoom exercise classes are just a few of the free services and activities that some have been keen to provide—but others have introduced more unorthodox initiatives through their involvement in mutual aid groups.
Romain Malan, director of the London-based World Harmony Orchestra, an ensemble of more than 100 musicians that typically performs for humanitarian causes, has been busy trying to fulfill requests for live music that come to him from dozens of mutual aid groups. “So far we’re telling people to give as much as they like, but the orchestra itself pays the musicians 30 pounds for a half an hour assignment,” he says. The fee is also a means of alleviating financial pressures on musicians who are looking for work, amid reports that 90 percent of workers in the music industry have experienced a sharp loss in income. Naturally, the orchestra is unable to play together, but Malan has sent individual violinists or cellists to the doorsteps of people in self-isolation, where they provide musical respite from a safe distance. “There was even a pianist,” he says, “who managed to get his cable extension to work on the street somewhere in Doncaster. The lady was really touched to have music played for her on her birthday.”
Not many are aware that the concept of mutual aid finds its conceptual roots in anarchist communism propounded by the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He argued against social Darwinism and discussed examples of how societies are likelier to thrive by adhering to the principles of mutually beneficial reciprocity. Regardless of mutual aid’s history, both leaders and participants in the U.K.-based movement agree that strangers have come together out of a sense of solidarity in crisis. “We try to remove notions of saviorism from mutual aid. People aren’t driven by duty—they’re driven by a desire to give support,” says Anna Vickerstaff, one of the main organizers of COVID-19 Mutual Aid U.K.
The swift growth of mutual aid has also inspired the government itself to harness the strength of communal spirit. More than a week after the first mutual aid network in Lewisham was born, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock launched an appeal under the slogan “Your NHS Needs You,” exhorting everyone with the means and ability to join a “volunteer army” of up to 250,000. This scheme, Hancock emphasized, is not meant to replace mutual aid or other similar groups. Rather, members of the public who sign up will be relieving the strain on the NHS by assisting with tasks such as ferrying patients to and from appointments, delivering medication, and phoning to check in on the well-being of people in self-isolation.
More than 500,000 people—double the initial figure suggested—enlisted themselves within this volunteer force in just 24 hours. This is perhaps testament to the fact that the single-payer, socialized NHS remains the U.K.’s most beloved institution, regardless of where Britons sit on the political spectrum: The Conservative Party politician Nigel Lawson once famously proclaimed that “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have now to a religion.”
The NHS Volunteer Responders program may have been unanimously lauded, but more than a few have misgivings about the way it has been introduced. Vickerstaff, the mutual aid organizer, is sceptical about elements of it: “The response from the government has been uneven and slow, and it has not happened at the speed we needed to prevent the worst from happening. … It’s important that they’re doing something [by creating NHS Volunteer Responders], but it is delayed and it doesn’t seem right that these people are not going to be paid.” Smith is more vociferous about his feelings on the state’s coronavirus strategy: “I have zero trust in them and am ashamed of the path they’ve taken.”
Jake Bolton, a 25-year-old business associate who is unable to leave his house because of two flatmates who came down with fever, echoes this anxiety over the state’s inability to adequately handle the pandemic. He found his local mutual aid group on Instagram and was added into a WhatsApp chat where he asked if someone in the vicinity could buy and drop off some paracetamol at his residence. The delivery was made within the hour, and Bolton transferred 4 pounds to his neighbor though the man had not sought payment. “Personally,” he says, “I feared that the government wouldn’t do anything. In Wuhan, food is delivered to your door and there’s no need to leave your house. I can’t see that happening here. But we have people looking out for one another, and a small act like that is so reassuring.”
Mary Harris-Cabado, 66, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is considered at high risk of being infected by the virus. After receiving a message from the NHS instructing her to stay indoors, she was encouraged to join her local mutual aid group by her NHS doctor. Harris-Cabado has since had fresh food delivered to her home regularly by a woman in her neighborhood. “Everyone has been very kind to me. As soon as this is over, I am going to take her shopping as a treat.”
But the rapid expansion of these community-led groups comes with mounting concerns over financial safeguarding. Louise Delmege, a director at the National Food Service Campaign, which tackles food poverty and advocates for universal access to food, mentions that she has identified a number of alarming issues with the way some mutual aid groups are run. “There are a few absolute no-nos, namely the storage of volunteers’ personal data in publicly accessible documents, which could be used by scammers. … This is also against data privacy laws,” she says. In fact, in Bristol, where Delmege works, reports of elderly residents being tricked by bogus volunteers have already surfaced.
In Southwark, a borough that has been described as the epicenter of the outbreak in London, and which has higher-than-average poverty and unemployment rates, a few mutual aid organizers are still grappling with teething issues as they arise. Trin Gong, a 35-year-old leader of the 250-strong Surrey Docks mutual aid group in Southwark, is navigating unanticipated complications around the payment and delivery of groceries. “We’ve only existed for two weeks, so we’re really just building [our] infrastructure at the moment. Right now, when we get a request for groceries for those in isolation, we try to ask if they are able to use phone payment or select a ‘click-and-collect’ option from their supermarket of choice so that volunteers don’t end up always paying out of their own pockets. At the end of the day, we don’t want [volunteers] to get hurt.”
Along with Oleg Giberstein, a 32-year-old fintech worker in her neighborhood, Gong has been attempting to devise a payment solution that allows volunteers to donate “if and as they like” to ensure that those unable to make payments for essentials are also covered—a form of community insurance. Giberstein, who calls himself an extrovert who was “going crazy in self-isolation,” says that he has been delighted to lend his professional skills to mutual aid and get to know his neighbors at the same time, even if only over Skype and Zoom. “NHS Volunteers is great and we live in a time where the more help is offered, the better,” he says, “but it’s decentralized, grassroots stuff like this that really matters. People always say that Londoners are unfriendly and don’t speak to our neighbors, but at the end of the day we know the areas where we live best. Now that we can’t really leave our homes, we have to rely on the people nearest to us.”
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Tuesday’s episode of What Next.