Four in 10 pandemic-era mutual aid groups still active, UK data suggests

Four in 10 of the mutual aid groups that were set up at the start of the pandemic to make it easier for neighbours to help each other are still active and many have become established charities helping local people cope with the cost of living crisis, analysis suggests.

When the pandemic began, an estimated 4,000 mutual aid groups sprang up to offer assistance to those in need with a range of essential activities, from food shopping to collecting prescriptions and providing Covid information.

Analysis by the We’re Right Here campaign of 1,000 mutual aid Facebook groups that launched in March 2020 found that 41% were still offering support to their local communities 25 months later. With fewer people self-isolating, they have moved on to help people in other ways, for instance through community kitchens, food banks and skills exchanges.

One example is Leighton Linslade Helpers in Bedfordshire, which started as a mutual aid Facebook group just before the first lockdown in March 2020. The group became part of the local authority’s official emergency response and recruited 300 volunteers to run a food bank using donations from local supermarkets and fundraising appeals as well as picking up prescriptions and delivering food to those in need.

June Tobin, one of the founders, said the group assumed that after lockdowns ended “things would die off, but they didn’t”. “The demand just didn’t go away. Lots of industries were hard hit by the pandemic and didn’t recover so people were out of work, then we saw the increase in the cost of living crisis, that’s really hurting people. People are in work poverty – they can’t afford to feed themselves,” she said.

Tobin and her colleagues formed a charity in October 2021, which runs a community fridge that has rescued 95,000 tons of unsold supermarket food from landfill. She also helps neighbouring local authorities with housing and donations for Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, and supports homeless army veterans.

While the concept of mutual aid is rooted in anarchic communism – it promotes solidarity, through the exchange of labour and goods, rather than charity, which involves giving and taking – the definition was expanded over the pandemic to cover a range of community endeavours.

Unlike the purists, Tobin would like to see a more stable basis for Leighton Linslade Helpers to continue its work. “I’m a socialist at heart and I believe that groups like ours shouldn’t exist in countries like this, in this day and age. We should not be plugging the gap where society is having to pick up the pieces that our governments should be addressing.

“There’s real, real hardship and poverty in this country. Not just for people who are out of work, for our elderly, for our disabled, for our people who are working two or three jobs.”

We’re Right Here, which compiled the mutual aid data, is calling on the government to introduce a “Community Power Act” to provide organisations such as Leighton Linslade with a more sustainable funding model. This would devolve power to councils and local people to give them a greater say over public spaces, services and local investment.

Sacha Bedding, a campaign spokesperson who runs the Annexe community centre in Hartlepool, said the pandemic had shown “how powerful community can be”.

She said: “That spirit of togetherness is still strong. But it’s happening in a system that still fundamentally distrusts the idea of local people having real influence in their neighbourhoods. Local people can be a big part of the answer to the problems facing us as a country. We just need the powers to get on with the job.”

A government spokesperson said charities had received an “unprecedented £750m package” of support to meet the challenges of the pandemic, while vulnerable people would receive “a £37bn package of financial support” to help them deal with the cost of living crisis.

She added that the government would put “power into the hands of those who know their communities best as we bring forward the largest devolution of power from Whitehall to local leaders across England in modern times”.

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