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Tue 31 March 2020
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Mutual aid groups are popping up all over Britain, helping those stuck in self-isolation. Through their example, we can also learn to combat decades-old injustices writes Nick McAlpin.

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Governments worldwide are facing serious challenges in tackling the Coronavirus outbreak. In the UK, we have already seen the Boris Johnson administration endorse a flawed “herd immunity” policy and face criticism for a lack of transparency and clarity around how it intends to bring the spread of COVID-19 under control.

While China has been praised for its response, it still faces problems. Its hyper-authoritarian state apparatus cannot ensure adequate circulation of food and masks in the quarantined city of Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak. Nor can it transport its medical workers to and from their now more-than-critical jobs. Instead, the system is kept afloat by impromptu teams of volunteers who shuttle doctors and nurses from home to hospital and back again.

Britain is not yet in quite such dire straits. Nevertheless, ordinary people have already taken upon themselves to step in where they feel that the Government cannot.

Mutual aid groups are springing up everywhere, from Cambridge to Camden – operating largely via Facebook. Their volunteers are offering to assist with everything from shopping for the elderly and the immunocompromised to jump-starting paramedics’ vehicles. Lucy, a student at the University of Sussex, told me that she cooked dinner for those left without by panic buyers stripping supermarket shelves. She are even plans to offer childcare, tutoring, dog-walking and translation services after returning home to Oxfordshire.

During such a crisis, no government could arguably ever hope to fully provide for its people’s wildly varied and innumerable needs. The state’s shortcomings were, to a degree, seemingly inevitable and mutual aid – even if only ever partially successful – should therefore remain a core communal response throughout this pandemic and beyond. 

Perhaps surprisingly, mutual aid has its origins in anarchism, with the concept first being fully theorised in 1902 by the polymath father of modern anarchism, Peter Kropotkin. What it isn’t, however, is something to fear.

Mutual aid means generalised, voluntary assistance and co-operation amongst equals, for shared benefit. Solidarity, not charity. It is reciprocal in the sense that once someone helps a person, they feel a duty to do the same, if not more, for others to return the favour. Lucy summed this up perfectly: “I’m somewhat disabled and mentally ill, so I know that I’ll need help. I’m all about giving more than you get.”

Kerryanne, a 34-year-old mother-of-two and member of a Bristol-based COVID-19 mutual aid group, was asked for help by an elderly neighbour after distributing leaflets offering support around the local area.

“I received a phone call from a lady on my street,” she said. “Her first question was, ‘how much do you charge for helping people?’”

After explaining that the service was free, the elderly woman asked for assistance with her shopping. By this point, however, Kerryanne had been forced to self-isolate after her young child came down with a persistent cough. So, she instead offered to help her neighbour to do her first-ever online shop.

“Bit by bit, I talked her through how to set up an online account, how to book a delivery slot, how to search for your shopping items and how to pay for it,” she said. “Being of a younger generation, these tasks are just second nature to us.”

The neighbour, who otherwise would have struggled to eat, thanked her helper graciously – and no doubt hung up the phone with at least a little more faith in humanity. This is exactly how Kerryanne felt when she later reached out for and received aid too.

Locked inside with her kids, she wanted to print out worksheets so that they wouldn’t miss out on their learning, but soon realised the printer was out of ink.

“I put my request to the Facebook group and was inundated with offers to print them out and put them through my letterbox,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it! The kindness [being] shown is just incredible. It’s just a shame it’s taken something like this for us to start acting in this way.”

It is precisely this appreciation of new visions of community that anarchist academic Mike Finn, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, highlighted. “Mutual aid raises political and social awareness and enlarges the sense of what’s possible,” he said.

This is what anarchism teaches us and we must learn fast if we’re to address other pressing social issues: the scandal of foodbank Britain, the loneliness epidemic among the elderly and the scourge of homelessness, for example. The state has shown it cannot or will not deal with these crises. So, wherever you are on the political spectrum, practise mutual aid today.


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