04.03.2020 Culture

Mutual Aid in the Time of COVID-19

Ann Lewis
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We are living in extraordinary times. As the Coronavirus has swept the planet, we are facing challenges we have never before encountered — from physical distancing and quarantines to profound burdens on our healthcare workers, financial uncertainty, and fumbling responses from our government leaders. Throughout all this, it’s easy to be filled with anxiety, distrust, helplessness, and fear. It’s also easy to become overwhelmed with ideations of the impact of this virus on the world. Several thousand will die, millions will become ill, financial markets are tanking, and the livelihoods of millions hang in the balance. 

If anything has become apparent in this chaotic, stressful time, it’s that capitalism — a system built to consolidate wealth in a few pockets of the economy — is not a sustainable economic and political system for our rapidly changing world. COVID-19 is the first natural disaster that has affected the entire globe in human history. And it will not be the last. 

With globalization, we have become so interconnected — whether in physical relation or economic — that if one region gets hit, others will follow.

This virus has forced the world to slow down. It has forced the economy to encumber. Economists all over the world are considering how to build proper tools to respond to it. But we need to think bigger than that. We, as a planet, need to consider the flaws of this system, one that can literally be destroyed by a virus likely spread by a little known mammal: the pangolin

This virus has exposed to the average human the severe inequities present in modern life. And most of us are now living those inequities, in one way or another. They are no longer reserved for the unhoused, the uninsured, or the underpaid. (However, those folks are feeling this crisis more acutely than the rest of society.) 

The average American is $400 away from a financial crisis. Many of us hit that crisis last week after our wages got slashed, or we were laid off from our jobs.

COVID-19 has exposed that those of us without a safety net will fall, those without a consistent income are incredibly vulnerable, and, last but not least, our economic system is tragically flawed. 
So, what are we going to do about it? Instead of railing against what’s wrong, it is time to create new pathways, new ideas, and new systems of supporting one another in this time of uncertainty. It is time for radical empathy and support. To develop new systems, we must start thinking outside of the capitalistic box into which we’ve been forced. As a human race, we must become visionary instead of reactionary. 
We need to think big; we need to consider that the success and health of our communities becomes our success and health as individuals. 
One path away from the destruction and loss is mutual aid. Mutual aid groups are sprouting up all over the world in response to the pandemic — neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, building by building. 

In times when governments fail their citizens, mutual aid is the activation of communities supporting one another to prevent individuals from fending for themselves.

These groups check in on vulnerable neighbors and can help get supplies like groceries, prescriptions, and other essentials to those who are immunocompromised, the elderly, or people who are otherwise housebound. Some organizations even support folks who are currently incarcerated by sending supplies and food necessary for survival. Additionally, there are systems for those who need emotional support in this time of self-isolation. Mutual aid groups are volunteer-run, transparent, and respond to the specific needs of their communities. They are easy to organize, and fulfilling the needs of neighbors typically is not a heavy lift. 

If there are just a couple of people volunteering per block or floor of an apartment building, everyone can be easily supported. (And yes, it is possible to do successfully with physical distancing.)

As we all grapple with mental health in these bizarre times, mutual aid will not only help those in need, but it will help us as individuals as well. Altruism is a great way to support our communities and the act of helping others has been scientifically proven to benefit our personal health and wellbeing. Assisting others stimulates the same section of the brain as eating and sex (um, yes please). It creates a sense of belonging and community. It can help keep our minds focused on positive things versus all of the doom and gloom we’ll see if we perpetually refresh our news feeds. And it fosters healthier communities, which, in the face of crumbling capitalism, we will surely need to rely on in the future. 
Building those networks now is crucial as we can expect more challenges down the road with the climate crisis and other potential pandemics. Knowing that you have a group of people who have your back when you need it is rare in a system built upon competition and globalization. It offers a sense of hope. 

Mutual aid organizations are structured so that anyone who needs help can receive it, even when volunteers themselves may need something.

Understanding one’s capacity is vital in these times. If you do choose to participate in mutual aid, make sure you don’t overwhelm yourself. Do what you can, but practice self-care by checking in with yourself frequently. If you need more folks on your team send out an email or flyer to your neighborhood.
It turns out, we’re all in this together. Red or blue, urban or rural, American, Italian, or Chinese. We have the opportunity to heal the divides that have been perpetrated by capitalism and competition. We can use our common humanity to transform our societies through support and volunteering. Participating in mutual aid may be the first step, but it’s an essential step towards building a more equitable and healthy world in which we all can participate.
If you would like to start a mutual aid group in your community, here is a toolkit to get you started. 
Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues. 

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