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Mutual Aid: Community Power During a Pandemic

Joshua Anthony24 May 2021


In times of crisis, it is common to see the union of communities overcome the unique challenges that each disaster brings. Following the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu, neighbours and relatives were rescued from building debris by locals immediately on the scene, while others set up temporary shelters for those in need. Independent tech-wizards during the 2010 wildfires in Russian built an online ‘help-map’ which pin-pointed danger zones and platformed aid-requests and -offers during the event. Most notably reported by the media, the Occupy Sandy group, which emerged in response to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, could boast an impressive twenty thousand meals a day delivered to those in need.

Now, as the world collectively lives out a disaster, through the course of which its citizens have been told to socially distance and clinically vulnerable individuals advised to stay indoors at all costs—even for shopping and pharmacy visits—it is now that the power of and need for community action has become increasingly evident.

Figure 1. “In this together.” Marked under CC0 1.0. (Creative commons licence)

23rd March, 2020, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the start of England’s first nationwide lockdown. By the next day, NHS England had launched their “rallying the troops” campaign, urging the English people to help their neighbours and families who were shielding with medication pick-ups, hospital visits and over-the-phone support. Such a call-out from the national healthcare service suggests it is ordinary people who are acknowledged to hold the power to tackle these wide and unique circumstances. Short of a Braveheart-esque ignition of national pride, one can commend the efforts of NHS to recognise and utilise the dormant community resources—but Community had already gotten there.

As early as the 12th March—before Matt Hancock’s address to parliament on the 16th March advising people to reduce “unnecessary” social contact—locally-led, self-described “Mutual Aid” support groups had begun to form across London. They offered a wide range of assistance for everyday needs such as grocery shopping, medication pick-up, and providing information and advice, and emotional support; and more bespoke aid was provided, including: technological repairs, online ordering, facemask distribution and flower deliveries—though, this list is surely not exhaustive.

By the sheer speed and timely nature of this community action, one is left wondering whether inadequacies within the institutional emergency response frameworks are what spurs communities on to take the direct action seen here.

Previous research shows that the emergence of new crisis response groups, the “emergent group” is the result of fresh challenges for which adequate facility to resolve them is not present or immediately available within existing institutions. In many disasters, this is a common feature that occurs at the early stages of the disaster cycle [1]. Uniquely, it appears as though some mutual aid groups, which in line with the emergent group research, formed at the beginning of the pandemic in March, 2020, have either maintained support or reactivated as the situation progressed and further lockdowns were imposed. This sustained activity is indicative of an environment whereby the needs of society have been continually supplemented throughout the crises by the work of grassroots groups.

To facilitate their operations, mutual aid volunteers were making posters, leafleting, researching information, translating, coordinating other volunteers, managing community finance pools and running phone-in services. And though there was some seeming structure of administration and coordination, an important principle that underpins much of these groups’ organisation was that they were non-hierarchical, independent and self-organising. More generally:

Mutual Aid as a mode of organisation refers to a horizontally structured relationship between voluntary participants from which help or aid are available mutually and free-of-charge between parties, at each’s own discretion, in the face of adversity—most commonly a shared one— unsanctioned by an overriding authority.” [2]

Figure 2. Mutual Aid finds it roots in Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”, exploring concepts of mutually beneficial cooperation within societies. The text is widely cited within anarchist literature. “Mutual Aid Mural” by eshutt is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

Groups existed at the Borough scale down through the town, ward and even residential building level, with each scale of locality maintaining independence through to the volunteers themselves (see Figure 3 for a schematic diagram). Each group was unique: some welcoming new members immediately, while others were more guarded and required postcodes and reasons for joining; some had clearer organisational structures with dedicated officers and coordinators; group admins contacted for questionnaires surveys varied in their willingness to allow researchers access to the groups, some feeling a duty of care towards their group members. Responses have helped shed some light on common themes of organisation and activity between groups [2], but it is their anarchistic and amorphous nature, which makes them so hard to track and study, that could be their key strength in fighting an emerging and changing situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 3. Chain of Mutual Aid group formation displaying spontaneous formation at all geographical levels, Borough, Ward and Neighbourhood, with horizontal autonomy at each group level down to individual volunteers [2].

Despite a rich history of such emergent groups surfacing during disasters worldwide, no provisions in recent British pandemic-influenza response plans were made to include such groups. Though unfortunate, this is not surprising when observing the UK emergency response framework, which operates largely under a command and control structure [3], and is incongruent with the non-hierarchical and seemingly counter-establishment structure of mutual aid groups [2]. This is evident in the tensions that have arisen when councils have interfered and ‘micro-managed’ Mutual aid efforts [4].

All emergency response is local in effect, even when filtered through a centralised system: it is those on the ground that sort through the rubble, build the shelters and cook the food, not the ministers and policy makers. Mutual aid groups are no different, except that they have bypassed the centralised aspect of the emergency response chain and affected direct action. Looking at the impact they have had, it would be unwise to suggest that a rational integration of mutual aid groups and institutional emergency response would involve the placing of such groups within a hierarchical chain; rather, those in positions of power should acknowledge the legitimacy of their efforts and empower them through outreach and communication.

Fortunately, reaching out has been made possible through social media platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp, which have given Mutual Aid groups operational power by allowing both those in need and able to help to communicate and coordinate online. Where the emergence of citizen groups typically relies on prior social networks [5], online networking has facilitated the quick establishment of community ties while also conforming to social distancing guidelines. Additionally, for interested researchers, a surprising benefit of online group presence is that group information and membership numbers were made accessible (in most circumstances), allowing for the gathering and analyses of emergent group data that could otherwise be too transient or chaotic under regular disaster conditions.

Analysis of borough-level mutual aid Facebook groups reveal that membership numbers are somewhat correlated positively with the percentage of those aged 25-34 years of age, and negatively with borough crime rates and the percentage of those classified by Government statistics as BAME (black and minority ethnic) [2]. However; explanations for these results can only be speculative. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has estimated that the predominant ages of volunteers generally tends to fall within the bracket of 65-74 years of age, while those least likely to volunteer were in the 25-34 bracket; however, the risks posed to the older populations from COVID-19 is likely to have turned this balance on its head. Similarly, research has suggested that ‘BAME’ community members could be at a greater risk to COVID-19 [6], which, alongside key factors such as involvement in key worker jobs and family caring responsibilities, could limit availability for participating in mutual aid group activity.

Other independent Borough socioeconomic factors such as the index for multiple deprivation, household earnings, and internet usage did not produce significant correlations, but the analytical power of the modelling approach is limited by sample size and the informal nature of Mutual Aid groups—especially within a crisis—that makes the navigation of data difficult [2].

Though results are inconclusive and liable to error, current research efforts show that there is opportunity to better understand the phenomena of emergent mutual aid groups, which could enhance the effectiveness of their intentions in future times of turmoil. To these eyes, there are two alternate visions tugging against each other: one, where community power is harnessed and nurtured by emergency planners and institutions; and two, where institutional responses are effective enough to preclude the necessity for citizen action.

One thing this pandemic demonstrates for certain is that the subjects of disaster are not passive recipients of aid and can and have participated in affecting vital response. Time and time again we are reminded that chaos is not an inevitability of hardship, and that, when duty calls, communities have summoned the power that lies dormant beneath their lines in order to tackle catastrophe together.

References

[1] Twigg, J., & Mosel, I. (2017). Emergent groups and spontaneous volunteers in urban disaster response. Environment and Urbanization, 29(2), 443–458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247817721413

[2] Anthony, J. (2020). Modelling the Emergence of Mutual Aid Groups in London (UK) during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic.

[3] Alexander, D. E. (2016). How to Write an Emergency Plan (1st ed.). Edinburgh and London: Dunedin Academic Press

[4] Tiratelli, L. & Kaye, S. (2020). Communities vs. Coronavirus. The Rise of Mutual Aid. New Local Government Network

[5] Quarantelli, E. L. (1984). Emergent Citizen Groups in Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Activities. Final Project Report #33, University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. http://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/1206

[6] Race Disparity Unit, Cabinet Office (2020).Quarterly report on progress to address COVID-19 health inequalities


Joshua Anthony is Editor of the IRDR Blog and a PhD student within the institute.

Joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk

Corona Wars: The Cost of Calling Disasters ‘Wars’

Patrizia Isabelle Duda4 May 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Navonel Glick

War on Coronavirus poster

On March 17th, U.S. President Trump began calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “war”, to wide acclaim by supporters and scathing condemnation by critics.

The reasons for using the war metaphor are straightforward. By calling the pandemic a war, Trump is appealing to a familiar scenario that we feel we ‘know’ how to relate to. It ostensibly simplifies the crisis, mobilises the public, and calls for unity.

The war metaphor is a powerful and effective tool that is often used in politics, but it is also pervasive in the world of disaster risk reduction and response. The historical links between disaster management and the military are well-documented. Today, from operational frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that were inspired by military management structures, to the extensive use of military terminology like ‘deploy’, ‘mission’, or ‘surge’ by even the most ‘military-averse’ NGOs (e.g. IRC, Plan International), the connection remains.  Even the widely revered (and much maligned) ‘logical framework’, meant to improve transparency and accountability in the aid sector, originated in planning approaches for the U.S. military.

At first glance, the war metaphor makes sense. The chaotic images from disaster areas that make the headlines are reminiscent of war zones, and the associated urgent, high-stress, life-and-death decisions demand composure, bravery, and decision-making attributes that we have learned to equate with our armed forces.

Yet, the analogy quickly crumbles. For one, as most disaster practitioners would confirm, the period immediately following a disaster which might require such an approach, at best, represents only a fraction of any disaster response effort, let alone long-term recovery or disaster risk reduction (through sustainable development).

In addition, as our experience in the field shows, armed forces are notoriously poor at interacting with vulnerable civilian populations, particularly in complex situations of unrest. More importantly, the war analogy is plagued by a core contradiction. While it can be argued that armies engage in war to ‘defend’ or ‘protect’ a population, destruction is often their main tool for doing so. This is not what disaster response or humanitarian aid are about, much less how one reduces disaster risks and builds disaster-resilient communities.

So why does the war metaphor continue to dominate the field? The simple answer may be because it works. It appeals to the pleasure-pain principle, triggers our basic fight-or-flight instincts, and provokes a reaction.

Yet, this strategy may be poorly suited to pandemics. We rightfully celebrate our health-care workers and other front-line personnel as ‘heroes’—yet another war term—and many of them may be faced with ‘war-like’ situations of urgency and life-and-death situations. But for the rest of us, “wash your hands” and “stay at home” are woefully anti-climatic ‘weapons’ to ‘fight’ the ongoing coronavirus ‘enemy’.

Photo credit: hairul_nizam / Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the ‘war metaphor’ may succeed in the short-term during a crisis, but such bursts of energy (or adrenaline) cannot be maintained over time. Pandemics are not addressed by acute, short-term measures or bursts of adrenaline, but instead, by a complex web of systematic health and public health initiatives, drawn out over a long period of time.

The most damning trait of the war metaphor is, therefore, the focus on the disease itself, instead of the systemic issues that allowed it to become a pandemic. Diseases, much like earthquakes or hurricanes, are natural hazards. They only become disasters when we are left exposed and vulnerable to them by insufficient preparedness and poor risk reduction measures. Thus, tackling the underlying social, economic, and political systemic issues that drive disaster vulnerability should be our priority.

The analogy of a marathon instead of a sprint comes to mind, except that in this case the race has no end. In fact, it never was a race to begin with. This may be the biggest fallacy with using the war metaphor for disasters: wars are arguably won or lost; at least they (should) end. Disaster preparedness and reducing risks do not—they are an ongoing process of achieving and maintaining sustainable practices.

The war metaphor, therefore, from the very beginning, begs to disappoint, because there will not be the closure it promises. Calling our health workers and other frontline workers ‘life-saving heroes’ is an admirable title they deserve, but were they any less worthy of it before the pandemic? And will they not continue to perform the same essential role once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

In this time of acute crisis, when the lack of preparedness and risk reduction is painfully exposed, we may be glad to have the war metaphor for the action that it catalyses. But by continuing to prioritise response over prevention, and perpetuating the myth of the ‘race’, what social habits will we continue to reinforce, and at what cost?

What would an alternative look like?

Coronavirus and Disaster Leadership

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi29 April 2020

Written by Ilan Kelman

During this pandemic, some world leaders have listened to the advice from their experts and scientists while others have ignored and contradicted it. The step from research and evidence to decisions and actions will always lead to a variety of outcomes where the researchers and the decision-makers are different. What examples do we have of academics, notably disaster academics, as political leaders?

The answer seems to be that disaster academics as politicians are rare. Partly because of scientists’ general inclination to shun the public spotlight. Partly because disaster research is an amorphous field, ill-defined and only relatively recently being large enough to potentially be considered a cohesive discipline.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Heads of state and heads of government who worked as academics are more common. Angela Merkel of Germany was a quantum chemist; Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia spent decades researching, teaching, and publishing on psychology, semiotics, and cognition; Woodrow Wilson of the USA was, suitably, a scholar in American politics.

Margaret Thatcher of the UK is often mentioned, but she did not have a PhD, although she worked as a research chemist before qualifying as a barrister. Meanwhile, casting the net wider to ministers rather than heads of state and government, opens up possibilities such as Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice as US Secretaries of State. Their policies were not the most supportive of disaster risk reduction.

At least a dozen other current or recent world political leaders have doctoral degrees with a vast range of topics and experience levels in post-PhD research. None identified could be said to have worked in disaster research.

Then, there is the meme circulating about the countries doing well in keeping Covid-19 under control, all of whom have women as heads of government. It is a somewhat artificial list, as there are several counterexamples. In fact, in mid-April, Israel was listed as one of the highest-ranked countries for Covid-19 safety when it did not even have a government and the caretaker Prime Minister (a man) was under indictment.

So we pose plenty of questions regarding political leadership and disaster risk reduction and response, especially during the current pandemic. In particular, given that we as IRDR scientists seek public and policy influence from our work, could we achieve more as academics or as politicians–or is there some combination which could function best?