Self-organisation and solidarity
Mutual aid is a positive development, writes Eddie Ford - so is the involvement of the left.
Without doubt, the coronavirus pandemic is a catastrophic crisis for humanity. The World Health Organisation this week described Covid-19 as the “greatest test” since World War II, which could bring a recession that “probably has no parallel in the recent past” - at least 25 million jobs could be lost around the world and possibly a 40% “downward pressure” on global foreign direct investment flows.
But, out of the horror, some positive developments have emerged. One of those is the flourishing of local support groups and mutual-aid initiatives in general. More than 1,000 volunteer groups have been set up across the country, with many thousands doing everything from picking up shopping for neighbours to delivering medicine to the most vulnerable - there are even music lessons to defeat boredom.1
The most significant organisation at the moment is Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, an umbrella organisation which aims to coordinate what are mostly spontaneously generated groups - run by around a dozen non-medical volunteers from south London.2 In its commendable mission statement, it declares that the “basic idea” is to support care efforts for people who are self-isolating, especially if they are “part of a more at-risk” demographic - including the elderly, disabled and people with other pre-existing health issues - while recognising that “injustice doesn’t affect everyone equally”. This means some people are “more vulnerable and need greater support”, such as people with mental health conditions - for whom the “scale of panic can be overwhelming and so community support is vital”. There are now 4,000 members on the local Covid-19 Mutual Aid page, with the number increasing every day.
Kelsey Mohamed, co-founder of Mutual Aid UK, described the response as “overwhelming”, showing what is “possible when we prioritise simple compassion”: people are “self-organising with incredible efficiency, respect and creativity”. The very first mutual-aid group was set up in Lewisham, south London, on March 17 by Seren John-Wood, who works in the theatre. She and her housemates distributed leaflets around the local area, asking if people needed any help when it came to the delivery of food and medicines. This quickly morphed into Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, whose website displays a map of known volunteer groups in areas stretching from Cornwall to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Some cover a single street; others a neighbourhood, ward or town. Seren John-Wood, for one, hopes that the solidarity that has emerged from the crisis “will forge long-lasting connections”.
Then we have the community union, Acorn, founded in 2014 in Bristol - some even refer to it as the fourth emergency service (along with postal workers). Acorn is a mass-membership organisation and network of “low-income people organising for a fairer deal for our communities”. It declares that “inequality and social problems are about power”, which puts community organisation “at the heart of the fight for economic and social justice” - showing that by working together “we can refresh and rebuild democracy”.3 It has a website enabling people in many of the major cities to flag up any help they might need whilst stuck at home, and then be connected to a volunteer. Acorn is especially concerned with the plight of renters - calling upon the government to “take action to protect renters, demanding rent waivers, mortgage waivers, and all evictions stopped”.
Various anarchist groups have been particularly energetic in setting up local groups and networks. The most prominent are the stalwarts based around the Freedom Journal and publishing house, Britain’s oldest anarchist press that was first published by Peter Kropotkin and others in 1886 - it provides a helpful and extensive list of all the mutual-aid groups in the country, which is constantly updated. There is also the Anarchist Communist Group, Anarchist Federation, Solidarity Federation, etc.
More than 600 local Facebook groups have already been set up, one of the most useful being the Workforce Coronavirus Support Group that has over 10,000 members. It states that the pandemic is “the biggest threat to our livelihoods in a generation”, but like any crisis it has “the potential to become transformational, as we build a workers’ movement” in response - making a “better society in its wake”. To this end, admins will post a thread to the discussion board one or two times a day, “along a theme that we feel is of interest to the group”.
Emerging from its slumber, all its hopes about Jeremy Corbyn dashed, Jon Lansman’s Momentum has launched an “emergency mobilisation” of its support base to help the vulnerable and pressurise the government. Apparently, it would “repurpose” its supporters (of which it is claimed there are 100,000) to join and create community-aid groups in a “safe and responsible way” to help make sure that people get the prescriptions, food and other essentials that they need. “While the super-rich jet off to their disaster bunkers”, the organisation declared in a statement, the pandemic “will hit NHS workers, the elderly, those in precarious employment, migrants and other marginalised groups the hardest”.4
Momentum has called for a range of measures like ending the “immoral practice” of NHS charges for migrants and wants to push the government to “tell the truth” and be “fully transparent” with the public about their sometimes confused and seemingly hesitant approach to tackling the virus. Hence the incompetent fiasco over testing and ventilators, plus the initial ‘herd immunity’ orientation - which was a disaster, as almost everyone now recognises, except maybe for Dominic Cummings. Momentum also warns that the right will “exploit the pandemic to stoke racism and division” - citing Donald Trump’s regular reference to Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus”.
Another inspiring development is the fact that more than 500,000 volunteers have signed up to support the NHS, with nearly five people per second enlisting in the new scheme, hours after health secretary Matt Hancock launched a call last week for 250,000 people in England to help bolster the NHS in view of the pandemic. The overwhelming response has prompted the NHS to extend its target to recruit 750,000 volunteers in total, with those who have already signed up due to start this week. They will mainly be delivering vital supplies, such as food and medicine, to up to 1.5 million vulnerable people, driving them home after being discharged from hospital and making regular phone calls to those in self-isolation.
On top of that, nearly 20,000 recently retired NHS staff have rejoined the front line, following a separate call for help. Moving at unusual speed, the government is erecting a huge makeshift hospital with capacity for 4,000 beds at the ExCeL centre in east London. Dubbed the “Nightingale Hospital”, the temporary base will be staffed by NHS medics with the help of the military and will initially provide about 500 beds equipped with ventilators and oxygen. Nor should we forget the restaurants providing food for hospital staff. For example, the Barn Kitchen in Coventry has delivered more than 3,500 meals to NHS staff at two hospitals in Warwickshire, and the Bread For Life school in Leamington Spa has been delivering freshly baked goods for NHS staff working at Warwick Hospital. More than £500,000 has been raised by the charity, Meals for the NHS.
Watching these inspiring and often self-sacrificing initiatives was the self-isolating Boris Johnson, who has been struck down by Covid-19 along with Hancock, Cummings, security minister James Brokenshire and a whole raft of other ministers and MPs and advisors - suggesting that they may not be following their own advice. He sent out a video message thanking the returning NHS workers and army of volunteers, remarking that “there really is such a thing as society” - which some have interpreted, perhaps too optimistically, as the junking of Thatcherite individualism. You would be forgiven for being sceptical about the idea of Johnson becoming a born-again collectivist.