Cartoons depicting mutual aid

The pandemic lockdown saw communities banding together to provide support for the vulnerable, filling the gaps to support left by a slow to act state. Mutual aiders describe the challenges they face providing help during the Covid-19 crisis.

Since coronavirus hit the UK this year, thousands of mutual aid groups have sprung up across the country, forming a crucial part of the nation’s collective immune response to the virus. Within a matter of weeks, from the lockdown beginning on 16 March, our collective interdependence was laid out in front of us, along with both our vulnerabilities and responsibilities to those around us.

Greater Manchester was no different, as stories began to emerge about neighbours setting up phone lines, WhatsApp networks and Facebook groups to coordinate essential food and medicine distribution, PPE production and check in with one another. The organisation of these groups ranged from street level whatsapp groups, to networks of community connectors covering entire suburbs, to grassroots community organising groups mobilising volunteers across the whole of Greater Manchester.

Much of the activity that has been taking pace in this context is now recognised under the broad banner of mutual aid – a decentralised system of support where members of a community give and get help based on their need and a collective sense of solidarity, rather than traditional notions of charity where a privileged few extend help down to the “less fortunate”.

Across Greater Manchester, this has meant a varying level of collaboration between a range of different people from different backgrounds, including individual community members and organisers working with public and private sector professionals, voluntary organisations, unions, faith groups and local businesses sharing power and resources to meet the needs of their communities.

Many of the core principles of mutual aid are shared with another practice that has been gaining popularity in the UK over recent years – co-production. Co-production processes facilitate co-operation between a range of stakeholders, sharing their experience and expertise to design and deliver services, often involving those commonly referred to as “service users” working alongside professionals in a given area, such as homelessness or mental health, but it can also happen outside of formal service provision settings.

“I think the huge success [with mutual aid groups] is in not viewing this like a service with inclusion and exclusion criteria – that’s enabled the BMAG volunteers and coordinators to make a huge difference for people and overcome some really practical barriers.”

mATT Kidd – bury mutual aid group

Co-production, like mutual aid, seeks to break down existing conceptions of professional and non-professional capacities, recognising all stakeholders in an issue as a valued part of the whole, rather than needy beneficiaries who only require help or angry antagonists who, by challenging the status quo, only create problems. Though in recent years, co-productive practices have been trialled and championed by leaders across Greater Manchester, the foundations of co-production require a radical shift from the way services are traditionally provided towards one of mutual understanding and power sharing.

Both mutual aid and co-production, and the debates surrounding them, existed long before coronavirus. The pandemic has prompted an avalanche of case studies to examine that we can learn from. Now, over six months since a national lockdown was announced, mutual aid has been on a rapid journey which has challenged long held assumptions about the way things need to be done, and raised big questions about where this approach could go next.

Whilst most of the mutual aid groups formed in response to the pandemic were created to meet an immediate need, these groups by their very nature created a challenge to traditional forms of support usually provided by statutory bodies. Many spoke of an interim period between the beginning of lockdown and the point at which government support reached the many who needed it, which brought about the need for mutual aid. It appeared the machinery of statutory services simply was not agile enough to respond to the needs of people in the first stage of this crisis.

Then when support was made available, there were significant gaps. Amna Abdullatif, councillor for Ardwick and one of the founders of Ardwick and Longsight Mutual Aid, explained that for the residents of Ardwick and Longsight, the food provision provided by statutory services was not always adequate or culturally appropriate:

“A lot of people that were calling often tended to be either older residents living on their own who needed cooked meals or ready meals they could heat up, and then quite a large number of muslim families that were looking for halal food. Then we had quite a big number of people from the African community that were finding it difficult to consume some of the stuff that was in the government and council packages…for dietary needs it just didn’t meet the requirements.”

Members of mutual aid groups in other areas of Greater Manchester reported similar experiences. Matt Kidd, who leads a co-production organisation called Creative Inclusion and has been working with the Bury Mutual Aid Group (BMAG), said:

“Whereas the local authority response hubs have, in many people’s experiences, tried to ration support quite heavily – someone I know who rang was very quickly dismissed as not fitting the criteria – I think the huge success [with mutual aid groups] is in not viewing this like a service with inclusion and exclusion criteria – that’s enabled the BMAG volunteers and coordinators to make a huge difference for people and overcome some really practical barriers.”

Matt shared success stories including someone being given a microwave so that they could eat hot meals during lockdown, and a blind member of the group who received help to assemble a new bed frame.

“[Statutory] services will never, in my experience, normally respond to things like that because they don’t neatly fit the inclusion criteria or the service specification of what they do,” said Matt.

The work that these mutual aid groups have been able to accomplish in such short timescales has relied upon a radically different way of working to those that are ingrained in our public services, which has at times seen a tension between newly formed mutual aid groups and those who had been previously delivering similar support. For some this just meant a cautious approach towards collaboration, as Amna explained was the case for Arwick and Longsight:

“The statutory services started coming in later than when we first started, partly because I think they were a bit unsure of how to take a way of working where we just talk to each other, make a decision and it happens. There wasn’t a safeguarding or a risk assessment or any of the kind of paperwork that takes weeks and months sometimes to do. So I think they were a bit apprehensive.”

In Bury, this tension between risk averse existing systems and the more DIY attitude of the mutual aid groups was highlighted in a tweet released by Bury Voluntary, Community & Faith Alliance (VCFA), on 19 March, shortly after BMAG was set up:

Contents of a tweet from Bury VCFA

Members of BMAG expressed frustration at being publicly associated with scammers who had nothing to do with the group, and cited difficult relationships with both the council and Bury VCFA as some of the biggest challenges to their work.

Claire Haigh, director of community interest company Collaborate Out Loud and a member of BMAG, said:

“They wanted the quality assurance and the safeguarding and the governance to look like they expected it to look. Whereas in mutual aid it looks very different..and that’s okay. We were taking all the necessary precautions.”

One of the questions raised regarding safeguarding within mutual aid groups is whether group members need a DBS certificate – a criminal record check which formal organisations and workplaces require staff and volunteers who may be working with children or vulnerable adults to go through. This process costs time and money mutual aid groups did not have. The simple solution to this issue for many of these groups, including BMAG, was to identify those who were already DBS checked and only allow them to enter others’ properties, if that was needed. All other volunteers only helped in ways where entering properties was not necessary, e.g. doorstep deliveries.

Sajid Hasmi, chair of Bury VCFA, explained the organisations role to The Meteor and their willingness to support other volunteer groups in the town such as Bury Mutual Aid. He said:

“Bury VCFA’s key role is to provide capacity building and volunteering support to VCS organisations.  This includes new and established ones.  We have policies; procedures; funding; good practice guides and the Bury Volunteer Bank (to recruit & place volunteers). We support any Bury based group should they need help.  We will be happy to support Mutual Aid Bury should they request any support.”

There is now some collaboration taking place between BMAG and Bury council, through the council’s community hubs, which some BMAG members attend to represent the group. Selva Mustafa, a BMAG member who now attends her local community hub, described the current situation as an “uneasy truce” and that “we’re supposed to be working alongside each other. I’m not convinced we are, but it has improved.”  

Despite differences of varying magnitudes, it seems likely that collaboration with existing institutions will be necessary to enable mutual aid groups to continue their work in any kind of sustainable way, especially now many of those who were giving their time so generously during the earlier months of the pandemic have returned to work, or simply become fatigued.

Amna explained how a central part of the Ardwick and Longsight Mutual Aid Group’s work, a phone line manned by volunteers, was ended in August. Callers were then redirected to council provision and local food banks instead, so that the mutual aid group could refocus their work towards a more sustainable long term plan, such as a possible “good neighbours scheme”.

“I was worn out, half of the volunteers are worn out…which is partly why we started to bring the phone line offer to an end…it’s not realistic to do that long term. As a reactionary thing to deal with an issue where the government is not doing enough is one thing, but I think long term it isn’t sustainable…. This is why we are talking about a good neighbours scheme which is about looking out for people on your street.” Amna said.

This kind of burn out and need to refocus energies is something mutual aid groups across the country are now having to contend with. Conversations are taking place about how this work can continue, but also, whether it should in its current form. As inspiring as the actions undertaken by thousands over the past few months has been, the question must be raised: why did that responsibility fall on mutual aid groups, when we are supposed to have a welfare state that adequately provides a safety net for our most vulnerable?

For many, any community led provision of essential services carries with it the red flag of an increasing burden being shifted from the state to the citizen, potentially paving the way for further cuts to state service provision. Amna shares these concerns:

“I would love it if the mutual aid group in Ardwick and Longsight was just a support group, about neighbours knocking on your next door and finding out if they are okay and if they need anything, [and] not to become basically a source of food for people. We had people calling that hadn’t eaten in three days. Who are so desperate and [too] embarrassed to call somebody that they have starved themselves for that length of time until they are desperate. That’s not what I want to see for a mutual aid group. I do think that that is a failure of our government and the fact that they have not been able to support people adequately during this pandemic or even previously.”

In an ideal world the role of mutual aid groups would be a nice to have, rather than essential, addition of roses to the bread provided by an adequate welfare state. The reality for many groups, as Amna described, is that mutual aid groups have often taken on the role of basic service provision.

For some, mutual aid is an inherently political act with a potential that can only be fully realised when carried out alongside a community organising approach which challenges existing injustices and builds community power over the long term.

From Acorn community union who turned their existing structure and resources towards supporting those hardest hit by Covid-19, through both the co-ordination of immediate support for those who were shielding, as well organising to defend renters from evictions, to 0161 Community who continue to highlight the need to support our key workers politically as well as materially, to the group of Chorlton residents who got together to produce pink scrubs for healthcare workers whilst simultaneously directing their anger towards government at the lack of adequate PPE, a variety of forms of mutual aid are being simultaneously used to amplify the voices of those who are most often sidelined.

Selva explained how her experience of being involved with BMAG has made her more likely to challenge injustice where she sees it:

“I would say that people are more likely to challenge now… The coronavirus had made me realise even more than before, that there are so many people falling down all sorts of different cracks in the system and they’re lost and they’re not having a voice. …If we don’t speak then who’s going to help? So I think it has changed, and people are more likely to challenge now.”

By Alice Toomer-McAlpine

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  • Alice Toomer-McAlpine

    Co-founder and Co-editor of The Meteor, Alice is a community worker and journalist from Manchester who works across a range of roles including youth work, community organising, video production and creative documentation of non-profit projects. Alice is interested in how the stories we create and share shape the world we live in, and how communities can take ownership of their stories and build trust with local independent media to build collective power.


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