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To Survive Systemic Failure Induced by COVID-19, We Need Mutual Aid

Mutual aid efforts catalyzed by the pandemic show us the ways we can challenge the systems that have failed us.

Volunteers hand out food and other goods to hundreds of people amid the COVID-19 crisis in Everett, Massachusetts, on March 20, 2020.

Part of the Series

If one thing has become clear over the last few weeks, it’s that our current state-sponsored capitalist system is manifestly incapable of dealing with a crisis on the scale of the global coronavirus pandemic. Not only are municipal, state and federal authorities failing to address the many unique challenges posed by the novel coronavirus, but as we continue to watch the economy freefall, it’s apparent that the market system is not up to the task either.

It’s in the face of this systemic failure that communities all across the country are rising up and stepping in to fill in some of the gaps. Many of these responses take the form of mutual aid — community-led, horizontal efforts that have arisen spontaneously with the aim of aiding those impacted by the pandemic.

Mutual aid has a long history in the United States, being used extensively by socialist, anarchist, and other emancipatory movements — from trade unions to cooperatives. It’s a strategy that pops up most often in times and places where governments are unwilling to address the needs of the population. Currently, it’s being used not just by radical groups, but a very wide variety of communities simply trying to minimize harm — especially when it comes to the most vulnerable among us, including elders and the otherwise immunocompromised. There have been countless efforts around the country to coordinate food, medication, and other kinds of deliveries to individuals who are unable to venture into public to acquire essential items during this time.

“We want to make sure we work as a community to keep safe our elders and those who are otherwise vulnerable to COVID-19,” Paige Wheeler Fleury of Oakland at Risk told Truthout.

Oakland at Risk is a newly formed initiative that has been focused on linking together volunteers and elders in Oakland, California, and its adjacent areas, including Alameda, Piedmont and parts of San Leandro.

“What we’re trying to do right now is to match people up and let them work out how they’d like to work together,” Fleury said. To date they’ve signed up 700 volunteers who have begun delivering groceries, toilet paper, and other essential items to the 80 or so elders and otherwise immunocompromised individuals who have signed up so far.

The group has been working hard to reach as many people as possible by posting on online hubs like Nextdoor and also taking to the streets to disperse flyers in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and other languages.

“We have a large swath of Oakland and Alameda County that are seniors who need help and there is no government agency — there is no government relief for them,” Fleury told Truthout. “This entire pandemic has revealed a complete societal failure. If it were not for the community groups that are coming together, I don’t know where we would be — because there’s nobody else that would have filled this need.”

Another population that is especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus are those experiencing homelessness. Homeless activists have been very critical of the state’s response to this community’s particular needs, especially since the state just saw its first coronavirus-related death of an unhoused individual last week.

Over the last few weeks many groups in Oakland — including the Disability Justice Culture Club — have come together to step in where the state and local authorities have failed. They’ve been dispersing kits with hand sanitizer, wipes, gloves, and other items to many of the homeless encampments in Oakland. “We also typed out a sheet of things that they can do to take care of themselves,” Jay Salazar, an organizer with the Disability Justice Culture Club told Truthout. “People that are living in the encampments are some of the people that need the most help right now and so we’re doing what we can to help.”

The Disability Justice Culture Club first began their efforts in mutual aid during the PG&E power shut-offs of 2019 when they focused their efforts on purchasing generators and air purifiers for people with disabilities. During the current coronavirus pandemic, the group has continued to provide aid to individuals with disabilities.

“In addition to the homeless encampments, we’ve started a Google Doc with people who are available to help and who have resources,” Salazar said. “We’re hoping to connect them to people who need help — that can be anywhere from getting them food or running errands or picking up meds.”

Google Docs, Facebook groups, and other kinds of online signup sheets are one of the most common platforms that groups across the country are using to connect volunteers with those in need.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a simple Facebook post catalyzed a community-wide network of mutual aid aimed at helping students at the University of Michigan who were at risk of being kicked out of the college’s dorms after Michigan saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

“The whole process was very spur-of-the-moment and we ended up with a sheet that anyone could edit to list what resources they could offer or what they needed,” organizer Sharif-Ahmed Krabti told Truthout. “From there, people who needed things could just contact someone who had signed up to offer support and coordinate how to meet their needs. It’s a radically transparent process and relies on a lot of trust between everyone.”

As the country continues to see the mass closure of not just universities but also K-12 public schools, preschools, and daycare facilities, there’s a rapidly growing need for transportation, housing, childcare, and other services that remains largely unmet.

“It’s unfortunate and unjust that we have to do this work in the first place but until we dismantle these capitalist and colonial power structures, it’s necessary to keep each other alive,” Krabti told Truthout. “We need to recognize that this organizing is inherently political and the result of a system that values profit over people. It’s not charity either. We are doing it because we understand that we will only be free if we work together and support each other collectively.”

Low-wage workers, precarious workers and those who are working in industries that are impacted by state-mandated closures are particularly affected by the coronavirus-fueled economic downturn. Half-measures like the economic stimulus package just passed late last week, proposals for free coronavirus testing, and eviction moratoriums barely begin to address many of the short- and long-term impacts that workers will face as a result of the pandemic.

There are many grassroots efforts popping up around the country demanding rent freezes, long term basic income payments of up to $2,000 per month, and other essential services and resources that will truly help workers survive. It’s unlikely that any of these demands will be met, at least anytime soon, and so many businesses have ended up relying on crowdfunding efforts to raise money for their employees.

One unique response to the hardships faced by workers in these times comes out of San Jose, California, where the cooperatively owned cleaning service TeamWorks Cleaning has been working to ameliorate some of the financial burden that has arisen after social distancing and shelter in place mandates led to a sharp drop in business.

“Our co-op is actually structured as a limited liability corporation, and so members are not recognized by government agencies as being employees because they’re actually partners in the business — they’re co-owners,” TeamWorks co-founder David Smathers Moore told Truthout. “Thus, workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance through the state and federal governments.”

TeamWorks is just one of many worker cooperatives throughout the country that are facing this situation. In response to their unique challenge, the co-op is asking their clients to continue paying service fees as usual even though no cleaning is being done — over half have agreed to this. They’re also in the process of raising donations from within the cooperative community itself. “We’re also asking for donations [from] other people of goodwill beyond the client base who recognize that workers like house cleaners and other immigrant workers in particular are at a very vulnerable situation and have their livelihoods at stake,” Moore added.

But perhaps most interestingly, TeamWorks has decided to take advantage of this crisis in a way that could lead to long-term improvements for the co-op and its member-owners. “Our members have an average of about an eighth-grade education and many had never used a computer in their life until they ran the co-op,” Moore explained. “What we want to do is take this period of time to give members the chance to work on developing new skills and working together on policies and projects to make the co-op stronger and better.”

TeamWorks is also in contact with other cooperatives across the country hoping to share ideas and strategies that strengthen the cooperative movement during this period of crisis.

“The thing we’re trying to cultivate now is for our members to look out a year and a half from now, in a post-COVID-19 world, and imagine what we want that to look like,” Moore told Truthout. “How do we want to grow as people and in the ways we work together? How do we use this moment and the ways that we respond to help shift to different kinds of relationships and systems that help us move forward to a more just and ecologically sane world?”

Over the last few weeks, countless mutual aid projects have emerged all across the country. In New York City, NYC United Against Coronavirus has published a comprehensive resource guide; in Washington, the Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective is delivering food to those who are sick or avoiding exposure; and in Illinois, the Chicago COVID-19 Hardship and Help was created “to offer a simple way for people in the Chicago area to ask others for assistance during this crisis.”

Sometimes periods of acute crisis and disaster can open up gaps in the systems that, as catastrophic as they are, provide opportunities to reimagine many of the relationships and structures that we take for granted.

The groundswell of mutual aid catalyzed by the coronavirus pandemic shows us that there are alternative ways of organizing society. Of course, these efforts are not nearly enough to fill in the gaps left by publicly funded government programs, during this time of great tragedy, hardship and loss. But after 40 years of neoliberalism, it’s heartening to know that individuals are still able and eager to organize in solidarity with their communities in ways that could potentially fundamentally challenge the systems and structures that have failed us.

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