This week a mum I’ve never met posted an anxious request for help on Facebook. Her two children were sick and she couldn’t leave the house to shop. All online delivery slots were taken. She wasn’t being paid until the next day, but her kids were already hungry. She asked if anyone out there could help. Would you?
Moral questions like this now scream at us every day. Never has it been more important to help your neighbour, yet never has it been more difficult to do it. As well as the usual risks associated with volunteering in cases like this – the contact with children, the financial risk, potential abuse – we have the new danger that helping may unwittingly spread corona. Gloves, masks or personal protection equipment that would usually help is hard to come by.
If we want to help responsibly, we have to be honest about this tension. We have to walk the line between harmful neglect and risky interference, between respecting isolation and supporting the vulnerable. We have to honestly weigh up the risk of doing something against the risk of doing nothing. This can sound Machiavellian, but it is not. There is no point rushing in and playing the hero if you end up spreading corona and overwhelming the NHS.
We also have to be aware that the scale and speed of this crisis mean that we cannot just rely on the old ways of doing things. The usual charities and support networks are overwhelmed by demand and many of their usual staff are sick or self-isolating. In ordinary times, families might call mum for help, but now mum might be self-isolating.
People are suffering now, and formally recruiting new employees to help is difficult when you can’t hold interviews and DBS checks take weeks to come through in normal circumstances. If we are going to help those in urgent need of food and medical supplies now, we will need to harness the huge energy and power of our neighbourhoods.
Like many people reading this, I hear powerful stories of community action every day. This week I learned of a complete stranger sending his spare masks to an elderly couple he had discovered were worried about living with their sick lodger. I heard of two neighbours who’d lived on the same street for years without meeting suddenly connecting through social media and sharing a sterilised thermometer. I’ve read people admitting that they stockpiled a few too many loo rolls and deciding to share them out, and I’ve seen new young volunteers show up at our NightWatch homeless charity to substitute for the regular, older volunteers who have gone into isolation (see photo above).
Perhaps my favourite story of the week started when my local soup kitchen was facing closure because it couldn’t source ingredients. A local café discovered this through our Croydon Mutual Aid Network and donated everything they had. The homeless clients were slightly surprised to see their regular dishes replaced with beetroot hummus, courgette bread and horseradish cream, but one woman told me she was so grateful that there was something and that she hadn’t been left alone.
The question then is not so much help or not help, but how can we help safely. The UK Mutual Aid Network has some good guidance, which we followed to support the mum who sought help through Facebook. First, we found a volunteer from a small local group based near her. We asked the volunteer for proof of address and photo ID, but told the mum that we weren’t professionally trained to check those formally.
We recommended a £30 limit on the shopping. We let the volunteer know there was a risk of going to a house where children were sick and made sure she phoned the mum on arriving, leaving time to step two metres back before the mum answered the door. We checked on both the mum and the volunteer when the job was done to make sure they were safe. By midday, the shopping was delivered, the volunteer felt a sense of agency and the family were grateful and fed. The money was repaid in full the next day.
Loving our neighbours, then, is the way we are going to get through this. This brave new world doesn’t exclude voluntary action, it demands it on a scale we haven’t seen before. None of this means replacing traditional institutions, but it does mean working in partnership with them. I’m proud our Croydon Mutual Aid group is in regular contact with the council, organised charities and follows NHS and government guidelines. Ultimately, it will be the combination of these traditional institutions and the energy of our communities and neighbours that will help us get through this crisis – together.
Rowenna Davis is a teacher, political activist and writer. Follower her on Twitter.
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