We are not accustomed to destruction looking, at first, like emptiness. The coronavirus pandemic is disorienting in part because it defies our normal cause-and-effect shortcuts to understanding the world. The source of danger is invisible; the most effective solution involves willing paralysis; we won’t know the consequences of today’s actions until two weeks have passed. Everything circles a bewildering paradox: other people are both a threat and a lifeline. Physical connection could kill us, but civic connection is the only way to survive.
In March, even before widespread workplace closures and self-isolation, people throughout the country began establishing informal networks to meet the new needs of those around them. In Aurora, Colorado, a started assembling kits of essentials for the elderly and for children who wouldn’t be getting their usual meals at school. Disabled people in the Bay Area organized assistance ; a large set out explicitly to help “Undocumented, LGBTQI, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Elderly, and Disabled, folxs who are bearing the brunt of this social crisis.” Undergrads helped other undergrads who had been barred from dorms and cut off from meal plans. Prison abolitionists raised money so that could purchase commissary soap. And, in New York City, across all five boroughs signed up volunteers to provide child care and pet care, deliver medicine and groceries, and raise money for food and rent. Relief funds were organized for , , and . Shortly before the city’s restaurants closed, on March 16th, leaving nearly a quarter of a million people out of work, three restaurant employees started the , quickly raising more than twenty-five thousand dollars to distribute as weekly stipends. Similar groups, some of which were organized by restaurant owners, are now active nationwide.
As the press reported on this immediate outpouring of self-organized voluntarism, the term applied to these efforts, again and again, was “mutual aid,” which has entered the lexicon of the coronavirus era alongside “social distancing” and “flatten the curve.” It’s not a new term, or a new idea, but it has generally existed outside the mainstream. Informal child-care collectives, transgender support groups, and other ad-hoc organizations operate without the top-down leadership or philanthropic funding that most charities depend on. There is no comprehensive directory of such groups, most of which do not seek or receive much attention. But, suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere.
On March 17th, I signed up for a new mutual-aid network in my neighborhood, in Brooklyn, and used a platform called Leveler to make micropayments to out-of-work freelancers. Then I trekked to the thirty-five-thousand-square-foot Fairway in Harlem to meet Liam Elkind, a founder of Invisible Hands, which was providing free grocery delivery to the elderly, the ill, and the immunocompromised in New York. Elkind, a junior at Yale, had been at his family’s place, in Morningside Heights, for spring break when the crisis began. Working with his friends Simone Policano, an artist, and Healy Chait, a business major at N.Y.U., he built the group’s sleek Web site in a day. During the next ninety-six hours, twelve hundred people volunteered; some of them helped to translate the organization’s flyer into more than a dozen languages and distributed copies of it to buildings around the city. By the time I met him, Elkind and his co-founders had spoken to people hoping to create Invisible Hands chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. The group was featured on “Fox & Friends,” in a segment about young people stepping up in the pandemic; the co-host Brian Kilmeade encouraged viewers to send in more “inspirational stories and photos of people doing great things.”
At the Fairway, Elkind, who has dark hair and a chipper student-body-president demeanor, put on a pair of latex gloves and grabbed a shopping basket, which he sanitized with a wipe. He was getting groceries for an immunocompromised woman in Harlem. “Scallions are the onion things, right?” he said, as we wound through the still robust produce section. At the time, those who signed up to volunteer for Invisible Hands joined a group text; when requests for help came in, texts went out, and volunteers claimed them on a first-come-first-served basis. They called the recipients to ask what they needed, then dropped the grocery bags at their doorsteps; the recipients left money under their mats or in mailboxes. The group was planning to raise funds to buy groceries for those who couldn’t afford them, Elkind told me. While we stood in the dairy section trying to decide between low-fat Greek yogurt and nonfat regular—the store was out of nonfat Greek—a reporter from “Inside Edition” materialized and began snapping photographs. Elkind apologized; he hadn’t meant to double-book media engagements. “Not to be trite, but I feel like this is spreading faster than the virus,” he said.
The next day, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez held a public conference call with the organizer Mariame Kaba about how to build a mutual-aid network. Kaba is the founder of Project Nia, a prison-abolitionist organization that successfully campaigned for the right of Illinois minors to have their arrest records expunged when they turn eighteen. “There are two ways that this can go for us,” Ocasio-Cortez said on the call. “We can buy into the old frameworks of, when a disaster hits, it’s every person for themselves. Or we can affirmatively choose a different path. And we can build a different world, even if it’s just on our building floor, even if it’s just in our neighborhood, even if it’s just on our block.” She pointed out that those in a position to help didn’t have to wait “for Congress to pass a bill, or the President to do something.” The following week, the Times日本一本一道经典视频 ran a headlined “Feeling Powerless About Coronavirus? Join a Mutual-Aid Network.” Vox, Teen Vogue, and other outlets also ran explainers and how-tos.
Mutual-aid work thrives on sustained personal relationships, but the coronavirus has necessitated that relationships be built online. After meeting Elkind, I joined a Zoom call with thirteen students at the University of Minnesota Medical School who had been pulled from their classes or clinical rotations. Their mentors and teachers were putting in fifteen-hour hospital shifts, then waiting in long lines to buy diapers before going home to their kids. The students had rapidly assembled a group called the Minnesota COVID日本一本一道经典视频Sitters, which matched nearly three hundred volunteers with a hundred and fifty or so hospital workers—including custodians, cooks, and other essential employees. The students insured that volunteers had immunizations and background checks; they established closed rotations of three to five volunteers for each family in need. On the Zoom call, everyone was focussed and eager, crisis adrenaline masking their fatigue. One student held a mellow, pink-cheeked infant on his shoulder.
Just a few days before, on Twitter, I had seen a photograph of a that a thirty-three-year-old woman named Maggie Connolly had posted in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, asking elderly neighbors to get in touch if they needed groceries or other help. Connolly, a hair-and-makeup artist, was newly out of work, and figured that many older people might not see aid efforts that were being organized online. The picture of the sign got attention on the Internet, and Connolly ended up on the “Today” show; soon afterward, she began arranging pharmacy runs and wellness checks for her neighbors and getting e-mails from people around the world who’d been inspired to put up flyers of their own. “My mom’s always told me that if I feel anxious and depressed I should think of how I can be of service to somebody,” she told me. “Hopefully, when we control the virus a little bit more and get back to regular life, this will have been a wake-up call. I think people aren’t used to being able to ask for help, and people aren’t used to offering.”