United community response helps those hit hardest by coronavirus

By Tom Brady
May 5 2020, 13.25

What do you see when you hear the phrase anarchy in the UK? 

Looted shops, burning cars in the street and an iconic song from the punk band the Sex Pistols.

The reality, however, has a way of making our preconceptions appear foolish. 

COVID-19 Mutual Aid is a series of non-hierarchical groups of volunteers springing up to assist the most vulnerable during the pandemic. 

Each group is encouraged to set up using its own rules – in a kind of anarchy for 2020.

But what began as an informal network for neighbourhood support has evolved to meet the community’s needs. 

Content manager Eliza Grimond, an organiser for Mutual Aid Chiswick, said: “We don’t turn people away. Even if we can’t help because it’s so far beyond our experience, we’ll try to put them in touch with the right people. 

“And we don’t just drop them at that point. We chase the right authorities to make sure they’re actually doing what they say they will.”

However, MPs and Councillors have pitched in to help: “They’re trying their best, and they’ve been put in a situation where there is no rule book, so we don’t want to come in and say we’ve got all the answers.” 

“This is the biggest epoch in my lifetime, and I think a lot of people will be defined by it.”

Eliza heard from four friends who were doctors who struggled to buy essentials at the end of gruelling shifts at three in the morning.

So she organised a food drive with Imperial Health Charity (IHC) which serves five hospitals in the area. 

Donations to frontline NHS workers has been part of the community response to coronavirus

IHC director of development Hayley Pannick calculated that tens of thousands of pounds worth of food and toiletries were collected for frontline NHS workers. 

The following weekend Eliza carried out another drive for NHS staff. She also applied to her company for a £10,000 grant to provide iPads for families who are unable to visit dying loved ones in the hospital. 

When pressed on the underlying political explanations for why Mutual Aid is necessary, members will remind you the group is non-political. 

Asif Malik, who founded the Hounslow group, says there are other forums for people to have those conversations. Mutual Aid is strictly about helping those in need. 

Asif is self-employed and he lost his work when the virus hit, but Mutual Aid has become a full-time job. Initially, he coordinated proceedings remotely but a desire to get more involved drove him out to volunteer. 

He spoke about the bonds he has made: “You do get emotionally attached. There’s so much genuine care out there. 

“You think we’re apparently in a first world country, things should be okay and yet I’m having to go to a food bank and do a delivery to somebody who’s isolated at home and can’t get food or basics. 

“This is the kind of thing you normally see on the TV when they’re doing some campaign in a third world country, but this is on your doorstep.”

Trevor is 57. He lives in a veterans association, and isolation is a factor of everyday life. 

In December 2003 he was sentenced to four years in prison, but he was released two years later on parole. 

It was teaching other prisoners to read and write that altered his perspective on humanity. 

Trevor should have been representing his veterans’ organisation at The Queen’s garden party this month. Instead, he will be delivering vital medicine to people who cannot visit the pharmacy. 

For people like Trevor, it is difficult to find steady work. A nine to five job is a pipe dream for the former prisoner.

He said:  “I’m worried everything will go back to normal after this, the pace of life will creep up on people again. 

“Suddenly, you’re trying so hard to stay above water you’ve got no time to help anyone else.”

While this is a temporary pandemic response, Mutual Aid represents the rebirth of a lost community and a support network of equals in the event we haven’t yet reached the bottom. 

In case the light at the end of the tunnel proves to be another train. 

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