A second wave for mutual aid?

October 1, 2020  |  By Luca Tiratelli , Senior Policy Researcher

The rise of Mutual Aid groups was a rare positive to come out of the pandemic, seeing thousands of people coming together to help their neighbours through hardship and isolation. But as we face a second wave – will we see a similar surge in community volunteering and its positive effects? Luca Tiratelli reflects.

Back in July, NLGN published ‘Communities vs Coronavirus: The Rise of Mutual Aid’ – a rapid research response aimed at producing a ‘first draft’ of the history of a social movement. When we conducted our research, all the groups that we spoke to expressed a desire to carry on in some form or other after the initial crisis was over. So where does the movement stand now? What has happened to these groups, as we sit on the precipice of a ‘second-wave’ of the pandemic?

As anyone who is on a mutual aid Facebook group or WhatsApp chat will know, the activity of these groups declined sharply when lockdown eased. This is in many ways unsurprising. Over the summer most people’s lives – whether they were volunteers, or people who were shielding and need of support – returned to some kind of normality, and the need for these groups declined.

A small number of groups, atypical of the wider picture, have managed to formalise themselves into entities that go far beyond the typical mutual aid group, and remain active. We’ve heard stories of groups that have now created the required financial and decision-making infrastructure so that they can apply for grant funding, and expand their activities massively. This is impressive, and the groups who have managed it deserve praise. Nonetheless, the extent to which they can still be considered ‘mutual aid groups’, rather than just traditional charities – albeit with roots in a particular social movement – is an open question.

What is far more common for mutual aid groups, however, is that they now lie essentially dormant. Their activities have stopped, but the infrastructure they created remains. This is the key thing to consider when thinking about the future of this movement. Mutual aid groups created things that did not exist before. People got to know one and other, connections were made both in person and on digital platforms. Established charities and local activists networked into a much wider pool of potential volunteers, and knowledge about local assets and local needs was harvested and shared. These connections all still exist.

Even if the groups go quiet, none of these achievements can be easily undone. What these groups have left behind is more networked, more resilient, and more mobilised communities, with social capital and community assets of various types built from the ground up.

Exactly what will come of this is hard to say at this stage. If we are indeed about to enter a full-on second lockdown – accompanied with a furlough scheme, or similar – these groups may simply spring back into action, like an ephemeral desert plant, only this time even faster, even more efficiently and with even more precision. Despite encouragement from certain politicians to snoop and snitch on our neighbours, and media narratives about declining compliance with measures, there is no actual evidence to suggest that solidarity within communities has decreased. So given the same circumstances, expect the same results.

Alternatively, however, it may well be that if we never return to the exact circumstances of the first lockdown (in terms of restrictions or working arrangements), the groups will never return in the same form again.

But this doesn’t have to be bad news. Instead, I believe we can expect the networks, assets and connections they’ve made to be harvested by future community movements, enabling them to flourish in ways that might not have been possible previously.

In this sense, it is not what mutual aid groups are today that it is important. It is what they have built and what they have left behind that will be the true legacy of the COVID-19 mutual aid movement.