Coronavirus catalyzes growing wave of grassroots action despite social distancing

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

Isolation, quarantine, and social distancing may be an effective strategy when dealing with a global pandemic like the coronavirus. But, unfortunately, in a global economy that has been plagued by 40 years of neoliberalism, the social bonds that help to create strong, resilient communities have been so badly eroded that the strategy of social distancing, while necessary, is having  many unanticipated consequences.

In the face of these challenges, there is a groundswell of grassroots action  in towns and cities across the U.S. and world. Although often hidden beneath the surface, these grassroots responses are growing rapidly in scope and scale. They are often formed spontaneously by individuals and groups who recognize the immediate needs of those around them and choose to act.

Many of these responses take the form of mutual aid — grassroots, horizontal, community-led aid that has emerged spontaneously to help those impacted in some way by the pandemic. There are far too many examples to list here with hundreds of google docs, resource guides, webinars, slack channels, online meetups, peer-to-peer loan programs, and other forms of mutual aid emerging online and on-the-ground. 

One of the most straightforward forms of community response is simply checking up on neighbors — especially the elderly or those who are otherwise immunocompromised. An example of this comes out of Philadelphia, where an online signup sheet for those in need titled “Neighbors Helping Neighbors: Philly Mutual Aid for folks Affected by COVID-19,” has been circulating. Other simple, replicable examples of neighborly help include things like zero percent loan funds for friends and family members in need and even things like soup swaps. 

As we’ve documented in our podcast, The Response, in periods of disaster and crisis, the most vulnerable communities are often the hardest hit. This is no different with the coronavirus pandemic. People that are especially vulnerable to social distancing and quarantining are those living with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness. Over the last couple of weeks the Disability Justice Culture Club in Oakland has begun efforts to address some of the unique challenges these communities are subjected to in the face of a pandemic. 

The group first began their efforts in mutual aid during the PG&E power shut-offs raising money for generators and providing air purifiers to those in need. During the current crisis, the club has continued to be active. “We’ve been making kits with hand sanitizer, wipes, and gloves and distributing them to people that can’t get out of the house or can’t buy these items,” Jay Salazar, an organizer with the Disability Justice Culture Club told Shareable. “We’re going to [homeless] encampments and distributing the kits to those communities as well.”

The Disability Justice Culture Club has also created an online Google doc with the aim of linking able-bodied individuals with those who have unique needs. “The needs can be anywhere from needing food or running errands or picking up meds,” Salazar explained. “Basically, [volunteers are] telling us what they’re able to do and we’re connecting them to the people that need it.”

These kinds of Google docs and publicly available online spreadsheets are a common and effective way of identifying and addressing unique needs during a time of social distancing. For  example, just over the weekend in Ann Arbor, Michigan, dorms at the University of Michigan were closed after Gov. Whitmer announced the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. The community response was rapid. 

“It started with a simple Facebook post letting friends know that my partner and I would take in anyone in the University of Michigan dorms who doesn’t have a place to stay,” organizer Sharif-Ahmed Krabti told Shareable. “From that initial post and other messages in different channels, a group of people came together who were passionate about building a network of mutual aid not just for housing but for other issues like food and transportation.”

The group put together a public spreadsheet where anyone can add resources offered or needed. From there, people who need things can contact someone who has signed up to offer support and coordinate how to meet their needs.

“So far there are over 300 people who have signed up to provide various resources or support to those who need it,” Krabti explained. “Most of the on the groundwork has been digital, which is actually beneficial since people need to stay inside to protect from COVID-19. The only time we are trying to be in-person is to actually deliver aid.” 

A similar form of mutual aid is being provided for children in Ann Arbor. The Kekere Emergency Childcare Collective has formed as a response to coronavirus related school closures. The group is striving to organize mutual aid childcare for families with preschool and school-aged children. Just like with the efforts in Ann Arbor, they have created an online form for those in need of childcare, transportation, spaces for children, supplies, food, etc.

School closures are just one form of cancellation  impacting communities — another hard-hit community are artists. Thousands of concerts, festivals, and other gatherings have been cancelled over the last week, and this has intensified as governments have stepped in to  restrict public events. This is particularly true in major art cities like San Francisco where many artists and performers have seen months worth of bookings evaporate almost overnight. Some are shifting to virtual events and helping other artists and producers do the same. For example, San Francisco-based event producer Scott Levkoff, Creative Director of Playable Agency, who had all his company’s upcoming live events canceled, is now co-organizing virtual events including best practices webinars, storytelling game nights, and variety shows aimed at getting performers paid.

The organization Springboard for the Arts has also put together a number of resources for artists during the pandemic, including a “Principles for Ethical Cancellation” guide as well as resource sheet for emergency relief funds, lawyers, and emergency grants.

“Many artists heavily rely on contract work to make a living, feed their families and to sustain themselves. We know that many artists do this work without strong contracts that protect them from cancellations or loss of income,” Springboard for the Arts stated on their website. “We encourage businesses and organizations to help mitigate the impact on artists, freelancers and contractors.”

Another interesting example of mutual aid comes from the open source community. Italy, which has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus, has been experiencing a dangerous shortage of hospital equipment. In response, a group of good samaritans have been using their 3D printer to make new respirator valves which they are giving away for free. A similar effort is being explored by a San Francisco-based designer who recently put out a call on for other designers and engineers to design an open-source ventilator. 

Perhaps one of the most overlooked and also most important responses to the coronavirus pandemic focuses on simply fostering human connection. Isolation can be incredibly challenging — as human beings, we crave connection. With this in mind, a Facebook group was created by the name of Distance Resistance with the stated aim of “fostering human connection in the face of social distancing, with particular emphasis on ways to connect that respect the physical safety of vulnerable populations during the coronavirus outbreak.”

With almost 3,000 members already and hundreds of posts a day, the group is dedicated to brainstorming ways for people to connect virtually while providing opportunities for leadership to individuals who may not typically consider themselves to be organizers. The group plans to continue on after the mandates for social distancing are lifted, aiming to celebrate the return to normalcy when the time comes.

A similar but much larger series of Facebook groups have emerged in Canada. They are advocating for a ‘caremongering’ movement — a challenge to the idea of ‘scaremongering’ that is so prevalent during times of crisis. The movement, which is comprised of more than 35 Facebook groups and over 30,000 members in total, is asking people to “offer help to others within their communities, particularly those who are more at risk of health complications related to [the] coronavirus.” 

Back here in the United States, we’re still in the very early stages of tackling the global coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing orders are escalating quickly as a number of cities and counties in California, including in the Bay Area, have already issued “shelter in place” orders. There are some measures being proposed across the country that intend to ameliorate some of the suffering that will ensue, such as proposals for eviction moratoriums in cities like San Francisco and San Jose, but these efforts will likely not go far enough nor will they have much effect on the vast majority of people. 

In times like these, when governments fall short, mutual aid and community response become lifelines not just for the most vulnerable, but for entire communities. It’s unfortunate that those in power are unwilling to step up adequately, yet at the same time, it’s heartening to see that ordinary people around the world are stepping in to fill the gaps, and with great passion and ingenuity.


This article is part of our reporting on The People’s COVID-19 Response. Here are a few articles from the series:


The Response: Building Collective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters

Download our free ebook- The Response: Building Collective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters (2019)

Robert Raymond


Robert Raymond

Robert R. Raymond is the content director at Shareable, founding producer of Upstream, and a producer of The Response podcast. He is passionate about exploring the intersections of