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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

My Happiness Depends on Yours in COVID-19 Crisis

Updated: May 23, 2020

"Going out fishing on my own is a lot safer than going to the grocery store," said Autumn Harry, 27, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Harry, whose classes as a graduate student have been suspended at the University of Nevada, is catching, cleaning and distributing trout to the old and others (Reno Gazette Journal).


The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the cracks in the social and economic systems of the United States.

Health care is expensive and often prohibitive. Black and brown people are dying disproportionately from the new coronavirus. Many Americans are not able to buy food when out of work for one week, much less six, seven or eight.

However, the pandemic also has shown Americans, at their best, extending a hand to their neighbors in need.

“In Aurora, Colorado, a group of librarians started assembling kits of essentials for the elderly and for children who wouldn’t be getting their usual meals at school,” reported The New Yorker on May 18. “Disabled people in the (San Francisco) Bay Area organized assistance for one another; a large collective in Seattle set out explicitly to help the ‘undocumented, LGBTQI, black, indigenous, people of color, elderly, and disabled.’

“Undergrads helped other undergrads who had been barred from dorms and cut off from meal plans. . . . In New York City, dozens of groups across all five boroughs signed up volunteers to provide child care and pet care, deliver medicine and groceries, and raise money for food and rent. Relief funds were organized for movie-theatre employees, sex workers, and street vendors.

“Shortly before (New York City’s) restaurants closed on March 16, leaving nearly a quarter of a million people out of work, three restaurant employees started the Service Workers Coalition, quickly raising more than twenty-five thousand dollars to distribute as weekly stipends. Similar groups, some of which were organized by restaurant owners, are now active nationwide.”

These activities are in keeping with the findings of a 2018 Pew Research Center’s survey of 10,618 American adults on the state of trust in government, other institutions and each other.

Three-quarters of those surveyed said that their fellow citizens’ trust in the federal government has been shrinking, and 64 percent believe the same about trust of each other.

However, 86 percent had hope for improvement in interpersonal relations. They said that local communities could be laboratories for trust-building as a way to confront partisan tensions and overcome group divisions.

Also, 75 percent of surveyed Americans agreed to the statement:

“In a crisis, people will cooperate with each other even if they don’t trust each other.”

So, we have a crisis, and local communities are stepping up to the challenge.

According to The New Yorker, the press recognized the surge of post-COVID-19 voluntarism, which began to be called “mutual aid”, not a new term or concept. Revolutionary Russian thinker Peter Kropotkin wrote in his 1902 text, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, that the concept is foundational to our systems of survival.

“It is not love and not even sympathy upon which society is based,” wrote Kropotkin, who was born a prince but dropped his title at age 12. “It is the conscience – be it only at the stage of an instinct – of human solidarity.” He argued that society is based on “the close dependency of everyone’s happiness upon the happiness of all” and “sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.”

In 2012 after Hurricane Sandy, people formerly associated with the protest group, Occupy Wall Street, formed Occupy Sandy to provide aid to those affected by the disaster. Occupy Sandy distributed clothes, blankets and food through neighborhood networks, according to The New York Times on November 9, 2012.

In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, mutual aid efforts began through the Common Ground Collective. Efforts included establishing aid distribution centers, opening seven medical centers, and building neighborhood computer centers.

During the recent stay-at-home order in New York, United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez held a public conference call with a community organizer about how to build a mutual-aid network.

“There are two ways that this can go for us,” Ocasio-Cortez said on the conference call. “We can buy into the old frameworks of when a disaster hits, it’s every person for themselves. Or we can affirmatively choose a different path. And we can build a different world, even if it’s just on our building floor, even if it’s just in our neighborhood, even if it’s just on our block.”

The following week, The New York Times ran a piece with the headline, “Feeling Powerless About Coronavirus? Join a Mutual-Aid Network”. Vox, Teen Vogue and other news outfits ran similar pieces.

It can be argued that a more equitable country with adequate safety nets would erase the need for mutual-aid societies. Hopefully, some of these informal groups will continue their work after the COVID-19 crisis to help change American culture for the better.

For the present: “This is about doing something to counteract the physical distance the virus forces and finding a new way to live in your community,” said Boston organizer Hannah Freedman, in The New York Times on March 23. “We can’t be together, but we have to come together because we’re only going to be safe when we help each other.”

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