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Coronavirus: Mutual Aid in a time of crisis

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Photo by Callum Wale (Unsplash)

Coronavirus sounded like something out of a science fiction movie. In the distant future in a land far, far away.

Now it's the plastic gloves worn by shop assistants. The signs saying 'no cash'. The cancelled holidays and the redundancies. Awareness of every cough. Awareness of where hands have been. Awareness of our mortality and of those we love. Coronavirus has emerged into the here and now.

This change brings fear and sadly some of that fear is reasonable. Coronavirus can be terminal for people with lung problems, heart disease or weak immune systems. Our health service is also at risk. Five years ago 28,000 people died in the UK from 'normal' flu in just one winter. Coronavirus is ten times more deadly. The NHS could be overwhelmed and other vulnerable people affected. The response has problems too. With physical isolation comes a threat to livelihoods and businesses. As we struggle with these challenges, we turn to others for help. For support. For mutual aid.

Sheffield Mutual Aid was started a short time into the COVID-19 crisis. The aim of the group is to support people having to self-isolate and provide kindness and caring as the virus hits. At the same time, smaller area groups have formed and people have got in touch with neighbours to set up street-level support.

I joined my neighbourhood group on Facebook and started chatting with a couple of people on my street. We agreed to print a flyer and post it through doors, giving phone numbers for people to call. A WhatsApp group was set up. Within a couple of days it was done.

It's a way of letting people know [...] that care and kindness is near

Straight away I found it handy. I needed loo roll and supermarket shelves were bare. Not to worry, a neighbour had some to spare. Now I have loo roll too. But the group is more than practical shopping trips and tips. It's a way of letting people know they don't stand alone, that care and kindness is near.

Street and neighbourhood groups are being built up across the city. Knowledge and support are being shared. Isolated older people in Meersbrook get leaflets with details of neighbours they can call on. In Heeley a self-isolating owner gets deliveries of cat food for their pet. In Sharrow a toddler confined to home is donated a slide to play on outside. In Greystones a bird bath and feeder are set up to bring the outside world closer to a self-isolating neighbour.

These little acts of kindness make great differences. And of course some of the chat is playful, helping keep things light. Jokes are made about the temptations of panic buying, the impossibility of keeping a two-year-old at a safe distance, the alternatives to loo roll. Many people can rely on friends and family, but extra backup is needed by others. Help from those who can give to those who need.

futuristic sounding things can become real

In the science-fiction novel The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin writes of a world run through co-operative anarchism. In this world, people organise themselves. Each street, area and city governs itself. People decide what is needed and help each other out. Even when they suffer drought and hunger, people stay happy because they are working together and solving problems together.

As the futuristic coronavirus becomes real, we can have no delusions of utopia. Panic buyers, sceptical spreaders and predatory scammers will see to that. But we also know that futuristic sounding things can become real. A culture of friendship and kindness, of playfulness and caring. The giving of support and collective problem solving.

A world of mutual aid could emerge in the here and now. As much as a virus can evolve into something fearful, we can change to meet that challenge with hope.

Jason Leman

The place to start is Sheffield Mutual Aid. Look under 'Announcements' for local groups from Beighton to Burngreave, Ecclesfield to Eckington, Greenhill to Nether Green. There are also support groups for workers, the self-employed and more. Many other groups are linked.

Age UK and Food Banks always appreciate your support, but now more than ever.

Voluntary Action Sheffield are looking for DBS-checked volunteers to support care work.

More nationwide info is available via Mutual Aid.

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