March 22, 2020 | 10 minutes read

Stronger together: a practical guide to Covid-19 mutual aid

We will need to rely on each other more than ever to get through this. These are dark times but all people must join together to overcome the hardships we are enduring.

Stronger together: a practical guide to Covid-19 mutual aid

Over the last four months a pandemic unlike anything seen in the west in recent decades has swept across the globe. It is currently affecting more than 160 countries, with almost 200,000 cases at time of writing, though these numbers are drastically increasing by the day. As the virus spreads the stock market has taken a nosedive, healthcare systems have been overloaded with new cases and governments have been unable to stem the spread of the disease.

Coronavirus has laid bare the most ruthless contradictions of the capitalist system

As the crisis has worsened, the various capitalist governments' responses have varied wildly over time and location, ranging from incompetent to outright criminal malice. In many countries, including Britain, key measures to stem the spread of the virus were left until far too late while some necessary support for those who are ill or self-isolating is lacking entirely. Years of underfunding for critical health services is finally coming home to roost, leaving the system wholly unprepared for the scale of the pandemic. Sooner or later the capitalist system in which we live must be held just as responsible for the suffering caused as the virus itself.

Corporations are making sure the cost of the economic downturn will be shifted to the poorest. Many who will get sick will not have the means to pay their rent or utilities and all the while companies are cutting sick pay or demanding workers take unpaid time off. The contradictions of capitalism are being taken to their natural bloody conclusion: the very lives of working people will be thrown away before sacrificing profits.

We must understand the further reaching impact of the modern capitalist system as well. Workers globally will be impacted too and the imperialist dominance and super-exploitation of South America, Africa and Asia will make it even harder for many people in those places to get the necessary food and hygiene products needed to live through this crisis. We must also understand that it is not simply an incompetent Tory government that is wreaking havoc but the global capitalist order that must be held to account.

While the problems of British capitalism are most transparently shown under the stress exerted by the pandemic, we must not think the situations are not at all unique to the recent state of things. Massive underfunding has put strain on our NHS, making it less and less fit to serve the people. Mistreatment of the ill and poor is also nothing new. The DWP benefits system is in no way fit for purpose, denying people money when they are at their most vulnerable, meaning they cannot afford food and rent. This system is absurdly difficult to navigate and most brutally punishing of disabled people and others who need it most. The problems exposed here caused strife for people in similar ways before the pandemic and will continue to do so if drastic revolutionary change is not undertaken.

It is certainly possible that the capitalist governments will make paltry attempts to support workers in certain ways, as we have seen with some countries halting evictions (albeit with a very temporary method). We must have no illusions that it is kindness that motivates these choices, but rather that it in the interests of the capitalist class to maintain a workforce to minimize economic damage.

Capitalism cannot function without the workers. The new powers introduced in the name of controlling the spread of the virus will also be used to strengthen the police state, giving the police and border control more powers to further harass and oppress the groups they were already attacking. Government intervention in this crisis is taking the form of repressive measures and temporary piecemeal concessions that are only given because they benefit the capitalist class in the long run.

Power is the hands of the workers

We will need to rely on each other more than ever to get through this. The government's mishandling of this pandemic--from Johnson's eugenics inspired plan to allow the virus to spread throughout society unchecked in order to create 'herd immunity', to failing to provide nationwide testing for Covid-19--has recklessly endangered human life across the United Kingdom. Great power lays with working people to avert some of the avoidable aspects of the crisis. This is where mutual aid groups come in.

Mutual aid groups are groups that are based on open and voluntary association. It usual takes the form of local community organising and in this case focusing on a specific issue: Covid-19. The aim of these new groups is to provide support for those affected by the wider consequences of the disease, namely currently those who are self isolating because they have been in contact with someone with the disease or are especially at risk of complications. We may soon also find mutual aid groups broadening to supporting those who are infected, as hospitals will be filled past capacity. Until we can destroy capitalism once and for all, tactics such as mutual aid has a role to play in supporting people, along side political education work and organising amongst workers.

The role these groups currently play mainly revolves around distribution of food and other essentials to those who can't leave their home. They are also taking on a role of social responsibility, walking dogs or making phone calls to check up on those who are isolating alone. Groups are largely organised very locally, with people organising over single neighbourhoods or even single streets, making it more accessible for most people to get involved. Although they carry out work on the local level, they should strive to maintain communication with each other to help organisation strategy and build a nationwide support network all working towards the same goal.

These tactics are important to support the most vulnerable people in our communities however mutual aid is not the end of our struggle, but merely a small part of a wider class war. Our aim should not be to just survive under the capitalist system but build a movement that can challenge state power and build socialism. The current pandemic is an inherently political problem and must be treated as such, as it exposes capitalism for what it truly stands for. Alongside supporting those around us, we must agitate towards the goal of organising a revolutionary party. Although a necessary measure, mutual aid alone does not necessarily bring us closer to our goal of communism. We must also take part in other political work to truly be effective.

The loose, decentralised nature of these groups may make them accessible and easy to join but it does pose some problems. They are prone to rumours or bad advice passing quickly around them, especially in regards to hygiene and safety, and since most people are acting alone there is no way to know they are following proper recommended hygiene procedure. These things must be watched out for and stopped where at all possible.

These groups can be set up by anyone, meaning we are seeing them pop up very quickly across the country, usually being organised over social media. While the term "mutual aid" is most closely associated with anarchist organising, the groups have been set up and run by individuals of various political positions and also reflect, to a greater or lesser extent at various points, aid organising tactics used by communist groups like the Black Panther Party in the USA or homeless outreach set up by churches and non-profits.

How do mutual aid groups organise?

The groups are taking a very simple form of organising, allowing people within a certain area to get involved by contacting them or joining social media groups. There is no set formula for organising a group and can be tailored to the needs of a local area and peoples. Generally they revolve around open discussion and delegating tasks based upon location of involved individuals. Organisers must be careful to properly store and secure sensitive personal data of their contacts, group members and people they are supporting and should not be shared with anyone, including other mutual aid groups, the NHS or police.

We want as many mutual aid groups as possible to be a success. To that end, we are able to offer our communications infrastructure, consisting of secure chat via Mattermost and secure video/audio conferencing via Jitsi, as well as secure shared docs through Cryptpad Suite. We’re offering this to any mutual aid group that want to use it, so that we can make sure that groups are in contact with each other, sharing findings and bringing all of us up to a common level of readiness. To get set up on this platform, contact us here. Together, we will protect the most vulnerable!

A common tactic to spread the message is posting leaflets through doors. Though this is a low risk activity, good hygiene practice must be followed to make sure the groups are helping rather than spreading the coronavirus or other illnesses. Printing paper should come from a fresh packs when loading the printer. Once printed they must be placed directly into a disinfected bag. Clean gloves should be worn throughout and changed frequently, including when putting them through doors. To decrease the risk of contamination, one hand can be used for touching possibly dirty surfaces like the gates and doorbells and another could be used to handle the leaflets. Using your non-dominant hand to touch dirty surfaces and saving your dominant hand for handling leaflets may decrease the chance of you accidentally touching your face with a dirty hand.

Leafleting allows the mutual aid group to directly reach those who are self isolating and provide them with information to get in contact with the group, where they could outline their needs. It can also be used to make more people aware of the group, expanded the pool of volunteers. Another tactic is putting up posters in public places, such as cafés, shops and public gathering spaces. Fly-posting may also be used by some groups to increase awareness. Reaching out to local religious, community and hobby groups can also be used to spread the message as far as possible. When designing a leaflet or poster, accessibility is key. The Macular Society has some general guidelines to follow to ensure it is useful to the visually impaired.

Perhaps the most important task immediately facing these groups is ensuring food and other essentials reach those in self-isolation. Options like home delivery by large shops may be available to some, but shortages may mean active shopping at smaller stores could be needed and financial restraints will make this inaccessible for large numbers of people. Food, toiletries and menstrual hygiene products will all need to be delivered. Having a range of ways to contact the groups, including phone, email and social media means people can let local group members know exactly what they need. The supplies will likely need to be donated directly by volunteers or bought by group members, rather than relying on external monetary donations as it may be a challenge to quickly set up the necessary systems and registration to receive charitable donations. Having an organised system in place for receiving requests for aid, buying goods and getting people to deliver them will be an important task to ensure smooth running of these groups.

Safety and hygiene are the keys to success

The following hygiene advice to ensure supply distribution is as sanitary as possible. While we will attempt to keep it up to date, it should not be the only source used for maintaining high hygiene standards and is not a substitute for advice from a medical professional. Check the most recent advice from the World Health Organisation and National Health Service for more information. Queercare also has a relevant up to date guide here. The information below was last updated 20/03/20.

Hand washing is one of the most important steps to combating the spread of the disease. It must be done regularly and thoroughly be everyone who can. Ideally soap and water will be used, though hand sanitizer will suffice in a situation where that isn't feasible. Hand should be scrubbed thoroughly for 20 seconds each time, making such to wash all parts of the hand. Hands should be washed before leaving a building and after entering one. They should also be washed after touching any unclean surface and especially when you will be near someone self isolating or have been near someone who may be ill. A guide on proper hand washing is available here.

All surfaces of deliveries must be thoroughly disinfected. A bleach solution mixed with cold water in a 1:9 ratio can be applied and left on for ten minutes. Any batch of bleach-water mixture should be replaced every 24 hours to ensure maximum efficiency. Make sure to avoid skin contact with bleach and avoid inhaling fumes by only using bleach in a well ventilated space. After wiping down the items, they should be put in a disinfected plastic bag. Anything that has been disinfected should only touch other disinfected surfaces or objects, else they will need to be disinfected again. After this they should only be handled with clean gloves or freshly washed hands that haven't touched any dirty surface, changing gloves between each delivery and as needed. Cardboard cannot easily be disinfected, but the virus can only survive on it for roughly 24 hours. Cardboard items that have been safely stored for longer than this period may be safe however it is far more desirable to only use or share items made from metal or plastic, which can be cleaned more easily.

Gloves should be changed regularly while making deliveries. Touching the face and other objects must be avoided so as they don't become contaminated. Public transport or crowded areas should be avoided to avoid contamination. Ideally hand should be washed with water and soap or antibacterial gel between each home. Disposable aprons should also be worn as often as possible. Masks are ideal too, dependent on availability.

Phones can get very dirty as they are touched so regularly. They should be disinfected whenever possible and hands must be washed or gloves changed after touching them.

Face to face contact should be minimised. A phone call or text can be used to inform the resident inside that you have their items if you want to avoid touching doorbells or doors. The outer bag should be placed down and peeled back so that the inner disinfected items can be retrieved without touching the outer layer. The deliverer should then step back to a safe distance, at least three paces before the items are retrieved. Once the items have been retrieved and the person has retreated to a safe distance, the bag may be retrieved and should be stored safely away from other full disinfected bags. At no point should the volunteer enter the home of the person in isolation.

We can't know for certain how long this pandemic will last. During this period, the first priority must be to avoid spreading infection to the most vulnerable. We may see as many as 80% of the population becoming infected over the coming months so it is highly recommended that those with autoimmune diseases or long term conditions that could cause complications should avoid distribution or handling objects from isolating houses. They should remain indoors as much as possible and reach out to the local mutual aid group if they need support. Giving supplies should only be carried out by those at the least risk of complications, who haven't been experiencing symptoms or been in contact with someone who has been infected. Those who are self isolating can instead make phone calls, manage emails and organise distribution efforts via the internet.

Capitalism is a sick system that demands workers must look out for themselves yet works overtime to maintain the status and wealth of bankers and CEOs. The liberal illusion of the current state being in place to protect the people is exposed as a falsehood as we see western governments rush to protect business interests but neglect the health of their citizens. These are dark times but all people must join together to overcome the hardships we are enduring. All that we can do now is support those around us and build the revolutionary movement to strive towards a better world.