“I was terrified. I used to describe it to people and say it was like being a small furry creature that had gone into its little burrow and was shaking. I was terrified, and nobody said, ‘you’re an idiot.’ What I felt was protected, and that somebody cared that I was on my own.”
When I spoke with Jo Leigh, it was her 263rd day shielding. Jo, 54, has multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, and was told that if she contracted coronavirus she would have less than a 50% chance of survival.
After her heating broke down during lockdown she posted on the Merton Mutual Aid group asking if anyone knew a plumber and Sybevonne Nguyen brought her a heater.
The two became friends. While Sybevonne supported Jo by easing the loneliness of living alone in lockdown, Jo would make sure Sybevonne remembered to get some rest as she raced to distribute 23,000 reusable masks for NHS workers, homeless shelters, and children on free school meals.
Jo said: “Under the Covid rules, some parts of the Care Act have been suspended, so local councils are no longer legally obliged to help those who are vulnerable with things like care. So without these groups, we would have been screwed.”
Unlike charity work where there is a one-way system of giving and receiving, mutual aid groups operate on the idea that everyone has something to contribute, and everyone has something they need. There are currently 2,058 groups listed on the Mutual Aid site that sprung up all over the UK during the pandemic.
When 18-year-old Zakaria Dada started Merton Mutual Aid on 15 March the group grew to 1,000 volunteers in just three days.
The WhatsApp groups became a space where people could make connections and vent about having a rough day.
One volunteer, Zainab Mahmood-Ahmad, 42, sold her cafe in August 2019 to focus on caring for her 12-year-old daughter, who is autistic and has chronic fatigue.
“In normal life, pre-Covid, it did lead to a lot of isolation and disconnection from friends. Even if they want to, they can’t always accommodate you, because real life is so busy and fast-paced,” she said.
When lockdown lifted in the summer, Zainab was worried that the sense of community she had found would disappear, and felt relieved when it persevered.
“Now I have my neighbours running across the street getting medicines for my daughter before the pharmacy closes. I couldn’t have pictured this a year ago.
“It’s unreal, because if it had gone the other way, I don’t know how we would have survived. You need people, you need a tribe, you need local connections.”
Sybevonne acknowledges that some people think the community spirit has waned since the first lockdown.
“People may feel isolated, because some of us are shielding, some are getting donor fatigue, some are getting compassion fatigue,” she said.
“But I don’t think it’s a wane, it’s just that people are getting busier. People cannot put their lives on hold.”
Her latest venture is selling Christmas masks and wreaths made from fabric scraps in a charity auction to revive community spirit.
“What I’m trying to do is to encourage people not to forget that we have got such so much goodness. We want to remember this as a time we built a happier community together.”
Zainab’s experience volunteering with Merton Mutual Aid empowered her to start her own community interest company, Awetisome.life, to support people who live with autism, anxiety and chronic illnesses.
She reflected: “There were always problems with school, problems with people’s healthcare, problems inside people’s houses, we just didn’t know about them, and even if we did, we didn’t have the time and energy to focus on them and to find solutions. And even if we found the solutions, they were just taking too long to get to people.
“We have no excuse now, because everything needed to be done quickly, so we got it done. And now we have seen the power of community.”