Projects that either people have initiated, or that could use those with time or resources to get started.
It’s a scary time, with little precedent offering a template for how to respond to a pandemic. In the US, we tend to see government and large corporations as the guarantors of security and social cohesion. But with neither seeming able to alleviate our deep anxieties, let alone address the serious public health, social, economic and other problems facing us, the situation must seem dire to most people.
What’s missing from this picture however is each individual and their community’s own agency, and the long history of mutual aid that countless others have used to survive difficult times. People across greater Boston and beyond are working to confront this common problem by networking together small local efforts, or plugging into existing mutual aid networks already in operation today.
As the stock market whipsaws thousands of points each day, a clear market failure is emerging: airline flights (which help spread disease) are incentivized by low prices, while hand sanitizer is in short supply and commanding astronomical prices. Meanwhile, Trump and others in federal government appear more interested in containing political fallout than the actual virus, doing everything possible to pin blame on the “Chinese” virus, and using openly xenophobic rhetoric about border walls to protect us from disease-carrying outsiders.
But we cannot afford to panic as this stunning catastrophe unfolds around us. It may be reassuring to draw inspiration from others’ experiences with navigating chaos. When the utter collapse of emergency response systems after Hurricane Maria left millions in Puerto Rico with barely any food, water or power for months, countless vulnerable people in hard-hit communities were able to survive through organized solidarity at the community level. One shining example is the network of Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (“Mutual Aid Centers”) that sprouted across the island, pooling together what little resources neighbors could offer each other for community kitchens, tool-sharing, charging cell phones etc. This experience not only saved lives, it also strengthened bonds between people in ways that will last a lifetime.
The takeaway is that no matter the challenges, we do not have to remain passive consumers of official support. Even in places with responsible local or state governments acting to protect the public interest, resources are limited and officials will benefit immensely from people getting organized at the community level. Committed individuals working in concert can build an effective response to meet immediate needs in our communities. These efforts can also help us strengthen social and economic interdependence after the crisis subsides, and get us started on building alternatives to the corrupt and authoritarian systems in place now.
Here are some projects that either people have initiated, or that could use those with time or resources to get started:
1 – Cultural workers can provide online content for children of parents working remotely, such as Valerie Tutson’s daily storytelling. Someone could match up volunteer tutors with older children. Since group childcare is risky, creating childcare assistance funds could help alleviate a significant burden for parents who need to work and cannot afford a babysitter.
2 – Healthy volunteers could shop for groceries or cook and deliver food safely to infected or immunocompromised people in self-quarantine, or those unable to afford food. Others could build pressure campaigns for donations of food and other essentials from large companies to community-led efforts.
3 – Assemble community databases of isolated elders and build a volunteer base to check regularly on their health and needs via calls or video chat. Rep. Rashida Tlaib reports that her constituents in Detroit are asking their children to write letters to isolated seniors.
4 – A Boston-based group is planning to set up a local fund that accepts donations of the proposed government direct stimulus checks, to be redistributed to organizations supporting low-income and other marginalized constituencies needing far more help to survive this economic hit than a one-time check- details coming soon.
5 – Canvass small businesses remotely, especially in low-income and non-English speaking communities, with language-appropriate resources on how to access new Small Business Administration emergency loans as a temporary bridge.
6 – Pressure local, state and federal authorities to release prisoners and immigration detainees, including through the carefully written emergency decarceration bill introduced in the MA legislature. Iran released 85,000 with shorter sentences, plus elders and those at risk from underlying conditions, Avoid prison riots like in Italy, whose response has been to lock prisons down and stop all visits. Plug returning citizens into survival resources.
7 – With alarm growing over a looming tidal wave of evictions and foreclosures, some countries and US states have imposed moratoriums on mortgage payments or foreclosures, but far fewer have addressed the fears of renters, who tend to be more economically precarious.
8 – Post or hand out flyers, using care in production and distribution, with info on best practices and resources- even if only within one’s own apartment building.
9 – Those with tech skills could help organize virtual community assemblies to gauge needs and make decisions democratically. Practicing this skill could make neighborhood decision-making and community governance familiar and much easier to adopt after the crisis passes. Groups like GreenRoots in Chelsea are already building networks of block captains to help organize communication and decisionmaking.
10 – Partner with community radio stations and public access TV/radio to develop messaging and share resources with the public.
11 – Produce alcohol-based sanitizer or a bleach solution spray for free distribution, helping alleviate the sanitizer shortage and avoid commercial products with triclosan, which is fueling concerns about the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
In short, we have difficult times ahead and a lot of prep work to do- but also clear examples to use as guides. People all over the world are waking up to new ways they can play a constructive role, joining local mutual aid networks and learning how they can act in solidarity with vulnerable neighbors. Small grassroots efforts pooled together under a common vision have often had large impacts in crises, and helped strengthen community social resilience in the long term.
If we want it enough, we can turn this challenge to our advantage and build the thriving democracy that simple voting can’t deliver. Be safe out there… here’s to surviving the pandemic and emerging stronger.