Learn more about how mutual aid has helped communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the vast majority of global citizens, 2020 was a monumentally difficult year in myriad respects. In 2021, the world is still reeling from the effects of a pandemic, which spawned numerous problems in its wake, including widespread job loss and a gravely compromised global food system. Additionally, political protests and wildfires continue to dominate the national landscape across the United States.
But despite the myriad challenges Americans have faced over the past year and a half, those same difficulties have also brought out the best in small communities. With a federal government that has been largely unresponsive in terms of providing basic human needs to its struggling citizens during quarantine, community leaders have eagerly stepped up to the plate. Many of those leaders, from California to Queens, formed mutual aid networks with the goal of caring for their communities’ elderly, unemployed, children, domestic violence survivors, and more.
Simply put, mutual aid is somewhat of a barter system, wherein community members exchange goods and services for the benefit of the entire community. In many ways, mutual aid is a political act, but it’s also a humanitarian one and arguably a necessary part of our post-COVID world. Let’s take a look at the legacy of mutual aid and how volunteer-led groups can help communities thrive.
The Power of Community
To better understand the concept of mutual aid, consider the importance of community on various levels. For starters, the community has long served as a fundamental aspect of civilization, and can strongly influence personal health and wellbeing. Being part of a community can boost your motivation, provide you with the opportunity to learn new things, and even serves to reduce stress. Conversely, without that deep social connection, your mental and physical health is likely to deteriorate, resulting in weakened immunity, poor cardiovascular health, and more.
In this regard, mutual aid groups can truly save lives. Perhaps that’s why they’ve been around so long, in various forms. The concept of mutual aid stretches far back into history, but is more prevalent in times of hardship, from wars to natural disasters and global pandemics. Although the groups have been given various names over the years, underprivileged communities have historically created networks as a means of survival.
Interestingly, one of the most notable examples of mutual aid in modern times was spawned by politics. In the late 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, the Black Panther Party established its free breakfast program, open to all children in the community. According to the History channel, the controversial political group also provided various other social programs with the purpose of fueling revolution. But it was the free breakfast program that may have had one of the longest legacies of the BPP: schools all over the country provide free breakfasts and lunches to children of lower-income families today.
Improving Community Safety Through Mutual Aid
In our post-COVID world, however, the core purpose of mutual aid groups is to strengthen communities rather than fuel revolution. Community support in 2021, whether via mutual aid or individual efforts, consists of helping people with limited mobility or compromised immune systems. Social distancing still seems to be one of the most effective methods for curbing the spread of coronavirus. As such, various mutual aid groups across the nation continue to arrange for the safe delivery of groceries, offer childcare and support, and do other errands for those most at risk.
It’s important to note that mutual aid is not synonymous with charity: In fact, the movement’s unofficial motto is: “Solidarity, not charity.” At its core, mutual aid seeks to allow recipients of assistance to keep their dignity, encouraging community members to give back in any way they can.
In these challenging times, community assistance can take an infinite number of forms, from establishing a free pantry to providing financial assistance, including bail funds. In some cases, community members may be directly in danger: The pandemic’s economic fallout has unfortunately forced countless people to remain in unsafe, or even abusive, relationships.
Even in the best of times, domestic violence is a pervasive problem. National domestic violence hotlines receive an average of 20,000 phone calls per day. What’s more, one in four women will experience intimate partner violence at some point in their life. Mutual aid networks can help bridge the gaps by providing domestic violence survivors with financial resources and additional forms of support. In regards to domestic violence, having both the funds to leave safely and a support network can make all the difference.
Providing healthcare in its various forms is also a goal of mutual aid groups. Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) are often at the frontlines of providing care for women who might not otherwise receive care because of a lack of insurance or access to providers. In minority and marginalized communities, where these groups often operate, FNPs are among the healthcare providers who help close the race gap in care such as prenatal and neonatal. Between 2011 and 2014, black women died at a rate of 40 per every 100,000 births, the highest of any developed country in the world. Healthcare providers working with mutual aid groups have a chance to change statistics like these.
A Well-Rounded Approach to Mutual Aid
As mutual is sometimes considered a rebellious act, the concept has seen its share of dissenters over the years. The bulk of mutual aid groups are informal, volunteer organizations composed of dedicated members of the community. That informal status means that mutual aid networks are typically ineligible to receive government benefits and/or tax benefits,
Yet a lack of government intervention is sort of the point, and indeed the reason why we saw so many mutual aid groups sprout up in 2020. In communities across the U.S., mutual aid networks have become an invaluable tool for reducing hunger, improving community safety, and providing support to vulnerable people from all walks of life. Maintaining community despite social distancing is of paramount importance as we continue to adapt to what has been coined the new normal.
Noah Rue is a journalist and content writer, fascinated with the intersection between global health, personal wellness, and modern technology. When he isn’t searching out his next great writing opportunity, Noah likes to shut off his devices and head to the mountains to disconnect.