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Beyond charity: Greater Manchester’s mutual aid response to coronavirus

Like Toto in the Wizard of OZ, the coronavirus crisis has pulled back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of our society. The precarity of the vulnerable and how many of us are much closer to that vulnerability than we realised. The new light has revealed who’s work is truly essential and how deeply interconnected we all are.

The crisis has also shown that the solution to many community problems can be found in their own backyard. The multitude of mutual aid groups that many of us now find ourselves either in, or being helped by, sprung into action in response to the pandemic. They are currently carrying out an unprecedented mass exchange of kindness and solidarity to get the people of Greater Manchester through this crisis.

By now, we have all been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic, whether that’s materially, mentally, emotionally or all of the above. Equal parts of frustration and gratitude became part of my daily cycle for the two weeks my household had to self-isolate just before lockdown, when we had to call on local friends to do our shopping for us. I now belong to a Whatsapp group with other neighbours on my street, most of whom I wouldn’t have previously recognised if they had passed me on the street.

It has been a similar story for many neighbours across Greater Manchester – tens of thousands like myself being invited to join Whatsapp and Facebook groups by those natural connectors in our communities, encouraging us to reach out to those around us.

More than 3,000 mutual aid groups have been registered on the Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK map since the coronavirus pandemic began to intensify in March, with more than 120 of those based within Greater Manchester. But this number does not capture the true scale of the vast network of autonomous groups working interdependently, including groups of neighbours who have set up brand new online spaces to give and get help from each other, as well as pre-existing grassroots organisations who have directed their efforts towards supporting mutual aid.

What is Mutual Aid?

Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK describe mutual aid as “a horizontal mode of organising, in which all individuals are equally powerful. There are no ‘leaders’ or unelected ‘steering committees’ in mutual aid projects; there is only a group of people who work together as equals. Mutual aid isn’t about “saving” anyone; it’s about people coming together, in a spirit of solidarity, to support and look out for one another.“

Friendships, not charity

Woodley Covid-19 Mutual Aid Group, in Stockport, are one of these groups who came together in March. First, local community organisers and staff from Start Point Coffee Shop and Woodley precinct set up a community phoneline and then a facebook group for neighbours to connect and help each other with things like shopping, prescriptions and check-ins for each other as and when they needed it.

Woodley Covid-19 Mutual Aid Group members

Their Facebook group now has over 900 members. They have posted flyers to over 6,000 houses and matched 133 shielded people with neighbours who can help – but that’s just what they have been able to count. Writing in a local newsletter on 23 April, Nicola Wallace Dean, a community organiser involved in founding the group, explained:

“We can’t even tell you how much shopping we have done, together, for people. This is because it just happens now. Friendships have been formed from neighbours matched together & we hope this will continue when the better days return”

coronavirus
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The group is not funded by any external organisation and they refer to themselves as “neighbours helping neighbours” rather than volunteers. They knew that what they needed to do most was help facilitate the connections that would allow people to continue helping each other on an ongoing basis, and that to do immediately they needed an organised, rather than a professionalised response.

One neighbour who had received help through the group said, “this doesn’t feel like charity, it feels like friendships.”

Reimagining, not recovery

Alongside facilitating street level support between neighbours, for things like prescriptions and emergency supplies, a mutual aid network in Chorlton has also been able to put to good use some ideas that were bubbling under the surface before Covid-19 acted as the catalyst to get them going. The new Chorlton Bike Deliveries project is a free of charge eco-friendly delivery service for local traders and households who are unable to get out to shops during lockdown.

The group hopes that this kind of activity can continue beyond the pandemic, as part of an economic “reimagining”. They believe this would be better than a recovery which involved a return to business as usual, which would not help the fight against the climate emergency.

Chorlton Bike Deliveries

Eve Holt, a local councillor for Chorlton and one of a group of community members who founded the Chorlton Coronavirus Community Response group, explained that a lot of her role in helping their mutual aid group flourish was to connect people and give them the space they needed to get on with it, rather than feeling the need to “jump in and be the hero.”

“We were facing a crisis that was quite clear, before they had even announced lockdown, was way more than our already overstretched statutory bodies and [community and voluntary sector] could meet…I couldn’t see anything other than a huge hole unless you support those that already wanted to spring up and take action at a neighbourhood level, and get out of the way to enable them to do that,” Eve explained.

Solidarity, not a sticking plaster

The community response to Covid-19 in Greater Manchester goes beyond this Mutual Aid network into a wider umbrella of social solidarity, previously described as “a ‘hidden’ economy within Greater Manchester” which carries out  “economic activities…that reinforce values of justice, ecological sustainability, cooperation, and democracy.”

The Manchester branch of ACORN community union most widely known for their work around housing and renters’ rights, is a group whose work is currently contributing to that social solidarity economy, by turning their existing structure and resources towards fighting Covid-19’s impact on Manchester’s communities.

ACORN member dropping off supplies during Covid-19 crisis

Since lockdown began, ACORN have been able to mobilise 600 volunteers, leaflet over 25,000 homes and help over 250 households through a decentralised system linking those who need help with those who can give it. They have also partnered with other community organisations such as The Old Abbey Taphouse in Hulme, to offer pay-as-you-feel meals to people who need them, and Women Asylum Seekers Together, to deliver emergency destitution cash payments to over 100 women asylum seekers.

Speaking about the approach they took in response to the pandemic, ACORN member Iris Breward said,

“Community support is the wording we’ve used but it is essentially a form of mutual aid. ACORN is all about building strong links in our communities and doing stuff for ourselves where the government fails us.”

Unlike a charity model, ACORN are focused on tackling problems with long term solutions through community empowerment, not providing a sticking plaster, Iris says:

“There are so many people right now that the government is failing and so many people falling through the cracks. We don’t want our work as a union to be plastering over the cracks and doing the work that the government should be doing. What we want is to build a strong union with empowered and active members who can hold the government to account and make sure that decisions are being made in everyone’s best interest.”

The collective shock felt by all throughout this crisis has clearly hit some harder than others, and while most have had to struggle with being cooped up in their homes, many renters have had to face the prospect of losing theirs.

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“It highlights the precarity of the situation renters are in – being in the midst of a crisis and having to worry about whether or not you can even self isolate because you might be getting kicked out of your house, basic stuff like that,” said Iris. “I would hope that that will be highlighted and there will be more protections in place for renters following this crisis.”

Alongside their community support, ACORN have continued to respond to the issues facing renters during the pandemic and were part of the campaign that won a temporary ban on evictions from rented properties. They are now expecting a wave of evictions when the ban lifts and hope that those who have found ACORN during the pandemic will join the union to continue working together in mutual support.

Gratitude, not taken for granted

Like ACORN, 0161 Community is another locally rooted, independent organisation who were particularly well placed to respond to this crisis.

Just before the UK went into lockdown, 0161 had decided to cancel their programme of sports and cultural activities in Oldham, Tameside and Salford to stop the spread of the virus. But they still wanted to help, so they turned their sights to those who weren’t shutting up shop – the key workers on the frontline.

The group hung around 20 banners across Greater Manchester with messages of support and appreciation for key workers including NHS staff. They also set up a 24hour livestream with messages of thanks for key workers – so that anyone working through the day or night will always be able to see a message of support.

0161 Community banner

An occupational therapist working in Salford said that in response to the banners, “I had colleagues bursting into tears on the way into work because they were so grateful that someone had done that…. That was a big boost to people in the hospital and to the community teams.”

Joe Chlebeik, founder and organiser of 0161, explained. “The big thing for us was supporting frontline workers to make sure everyone knows that we’re thinking of them and they’re not forgotten in any way. That we care and we appreciate it.”

The group quickly raised £2000 from their local community, which they used to buy supplies for key workers across Greater Manchester, including chocolate, healthy snacks and PPE. They have now dropped off supplies at over 40 different locations, covering hospitals, mental health trusts, fire stations, 999 call centres, bus depots and GPs. Joe says:

“What people are beginning to see is that [the power] lies with us, and that actually the people that maybe you used to take for granted – the bus driver, the lad who works in the shop or the lad who drives the trams – the people you don’t think about most of the time – are actually the most important people, all of the time.

“It shouldn’t become the norm for us to raise money for the NHS because it’s not a charity – that goes for loads of frontline stuff as well. But the fact is that helping each other and helping the people who are going to work is how communities grow and build…And if it means that workers on the frontline get better rights because of this, or we treat people better, then that’s a massive thing.”

Helped and helping

The kind of work being done by groups like ACORN, 0161 and local mutual aid groups across Greater Manchester is reaching beyond a narrative of volunteers and vulnerable people, and is instead revealing a deep rooted network of interdependence that we all draw on in some way or another.

Stories are emerging of people who have been able to cross the line from helped to helping, and back again when they need to, such as Ellie, who plucked up the courage to ask for help on the Greater Manchester Mutual Aid Network Facebook group last month.

Ellie struggles with severe mental health problems, including generalised anxiety disorder, depression and complex PTSD. These were exacerbated by the pandemic leaving her completely housebound and unable to buy the food and small home comforts that she was used to in her normal routine. Whilst a local charity had been able to provide her with a food parcel, there were a few items Ellie was left without that were necessary for her mental health routine.

Ellie was worried that the “seemingly trivial” items she was asking for, such as dairy free chocolate, might cause her to be judged by others in the group. She was instead met with a wave of acceptance and generosity.

“I am unbelievably grateful for the help from the charity, but unfortunately due to allergies and other issues, a lot of the things they sent weren’t appropriate for me…In the [mutual aid] group, I was able to be more frank and upfront about what I needed. It was really scary, but when you have mental health problems and things are so out of the ordinary anyway, and then you can’t get the things you would normally have, or [the things] that “comfort” you, it’s really hard,” Ellie said.

“The genuine kindness and humanity felt from the people that reached out to me lifted me so much mentally as well.”

The kindness Ellie received has inspired her to pay it forward by creating emergency care packages for people struggling with their mental health through the pandemic. Ellie said “I’m really passionate about these packages, as I want to help those who feel like me. Lost, confused, scared, anxious. I want to brighten the days of people who haven’t smiled in a while.”

Ellie’s story shows the power that simply asking for help can have, but also how nerve wracking it can be when you don’t know what response you might get. During this crisis, many people including myself, who don’t normally think of ourselves as ‘in need’, have had to reach out for help from those around us and hope that there’s somebody nearby who can take our hand.

If this shared experience is showing us anything it is just how interconnected and reliant on one another we all are – on our friends and family, our neighbours, our workers who care for us and keep our lives moving, and that whether it’s food, friendship, emotional support or just simply gratitude, we all have something to give.


Alice Toomer-McAlpine

What you can do:

  • You can find your nearest mutual aid group, or find out how to start your own, here
  • Give and get help with ACORN’s Coronavirus Community Support here
  • Send your message to frontline workers and donate to 0161’s community fund here

To find guidance on how mutual aid can be carried out whilst adhering to social distancing measures, click here

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  1. anthony constantinou

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