Mutual aid is making a comeback during COVID-19 outbreak

A home-based sewing cooperative in metro Detroit had only been running a few months when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan. The women’s group immediately accelerated their efforts and started making masks with what they had readily available. 

“We asked others to help and now we have over 50 people willing to jump into action and sew from their homes,” says Detroit Community Wealth Fund Executive Director Margo Dalal. 

With a grant to purchase enough supplies to make 6,000-plus masks, the group plans to sell them at an affordable rate, to meet community needs and supply sewers with a much-needed income during the pandemic.

This concept of mutual aid is not a new idea, but with COVID-19 increasing the need of communities around the world, it’s becoming a more popular — and more organized — one. 

There’s a politicized philosophy behind the term mutual aid, described by social movements as cooperation for the sake of the common good, and offered by anarchist groups as an alternative to capitalism. At a grassroots level though, it’s about helping a neighbor in need. Locally, members of the Facebook group Port Huron Families in Need share links to resources as well as offers to help, such as dropping off food.

Lauren Schandevel has seen firsthand what mutual aid can do for neighborhoods.
“On the ground, this looks like groups delivering bottled water to residents experiencing shutoffs,” says Lauren Schandevel, Macomb County organizer for community group We the People

“It looks like community members picking up groceries and medication for more vulnerable neighbors. It looks like donating to a GoFundMe for service workers and other folks who have been laid off.”

“It looks like kindness.”

Mutual aid organizations and groups are popping up nationwide to offer relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. A national network hub highlights groups that are self-supporting each other across the U.S. but where the numbers are really increasing is via new Facebook groups and social media channels at a local level. Residents are using online platforms to call for, and offer, help in their neighborhoods and, like the mutual aid group MANY in Ypsilanti, they are hyper-local.

For the organizers behind the 6,000-member Metro Detroit COVID-19 support group on Facebook, it’s a way to share and request resources. 

Justin Onwenu is one of the founders of a Facebook support group, set up to meet the challenges of COVID-19.
“We all know that there are gaps in the policy decisions that are made and these gaps can impact our communities adversely,” says the support group’s co-founder Justin Onwenu.

“I think the work that’s been going on from a lot of folks is aimed at making sure those gaps are addressed.”

Dalal says some mutual aid efforts were so fast to spring up in Michigan that it is hard to determine who started them.

“Detroiters know how to help each other,” she says. “They know how to organize in crisis, residents here have had plenty of practice, responding to water shutoffs, homelessness, school closures, and even practice rapidly responding to the needs of other communities, like in Flint.”

Margo Dalal has witnessed the rapid growth of mutual aid groups in metro Detroit.

Outside of social media, mutual aid forms are available online for residents to apply for help from community members in Detroit, Huron Valley, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo as well as in Traverse City. These requests are compiled, usually into an Excel spreadsheet on Google Drive, and other residents can offer help, marking the status of a request as “needs assistance”, “started”, “ongoing” or “completed”. 

Requests usually call for assistance with childcare, monetary donations, pet care, food, hand sanitizer, and clothing. Sometimes they are simple and straight-forward, like grocery pick-ups or the request from a resident in the Lansing area who lived alone and was worried they were getting sick, but didn’t have a thermometer. It was something easily remedied when a donor dropped one off.

Sometimes requests are more complicated, like temporary housing, or the family (with one member suffering an autoimmune issue) who were in the middle of shower renovations and needed someone to help them complete the task, so they have a functioning way to bathe. 

“Yesterday someone called my friend out of the blue asking for groceries because her name was on the spreadsheet,” says Dalal. “So I am glad some people are being upfront about asking for what they need. It is too dangerous to just knock on doors and ask people if they are okay.”

Detroit is not the only area seeing a growth in mutual aid groups. Mutual Aid U.S.A. aims to create a central website of local COVID-19 groups organizing to help their communities and have compiled a spreadsheet online. Their virtual map has over 400 groups and their website offers an “emotional aid” toolkit with tips for anxiety, financial fears, parents and meditation.

Further afield, Covid Mutual Aid UK is connecting residents in the United Kingdom with local resources. The organization, staffed by volunteers, has recorded over 200 groups that have emerged to offer relief during the outbreak. Coordinators use WhatsApp and Facebook groups to provide people in self-isolation with help shopping, dog-walking and picking up prescriptions.

“No matter what we look like, where we live, or how much money we have, getting sick reminds us that at our core we’re all just human,” says one of the coordinators Anna Vickerstaff. 

For Hope Winter-Hall, a resident of Islington, London, finding a local group has changed her outlook on the future. 

“I am a disabled person with a care package,” Winter-Hall says. “I am self isolating with my 92 year old mother. We already know that social services and the [National Health Service] were overwhelmed before this virus hit. I am very well prepared for months of isolation but I will be needing help before it is over.”

“In every country it’s the old, the sick and those already struggling who will be affected worse,” Vickerstaff says. “We want to make sure that no one in our communities is being left to face this crisis alone, and because we want to try and redress some of the serious inequalities this outbreak will expose.”