Everything Is Falling Apart, but Strangers Are Saving Each Other's Lives

Mutual aid groups are helping to connect those who most need help with those who can provide it.
March 19, 2020, 3:00pm
A box of meat being packed by workers at a food bank.
Frozen meats being packed at a food bank in Pennsylvania. Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty

On March 13, as most of North America was only just beginning to realize the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, a single mother in Vancouver, Canada, was forced to watch it unfold in real time: both her daughters had just come home from school with burning fevers and hacking coughs.

Annie (whose name has been changed at her request due to an abusive relationship) is a 31-year-old mother of two. She waited for hours to be connected with telehealth—the local number was swamped by thousands of anxious Vancouverites—and once she finally spoke with a nurse, she was told to put her whole family under strict isolation for two weeks.

There was just one issue: they didn’t have toilet paper, medicine, shampoo, conditioner, or enough food to last until the end of their quarantine.

“One of my friends came across this COVID-19 Facebook group and suggested I join,” Annie said. “I kept scrolling through and wondering if I should make a post. When I finally did… people started working together in order to help me, a complete stranger.”

That Facebook group, “COVID-19 Coming Together (Vancouver)”, is just one in a sprawling constellation of mutual aid pages that are popping up across the world. The idea is to connect people who are willing to help the people who need it, doing grocery runs, making food donations, helping with rent, babysitting and much more.

Just a day after a group of university students started the page, it had already amassed 6,000 members; as of today, it had more than 20,000. A group called “CareMongering: COVID-19” in Toronto has 11,000; “Covid-19 Mutual Aid United Kingdom” has 10,000; even small cities and towns are starting pages that are racking up 1,000-plus members within days of their conception.

In New York, a community-sourced Google doc linking more than 50 different groups and resources is spreading rapidly across social media. It gives readers the tools to access the internet during the crisis, contact their representatives, find school and university closure information and even links to rent strike and anti-ICE organizing resources. Perhaps most importantly, it provides access to 34 regional mutual aid groups across the city and beyond.

“This pandemic is isolating us, of course, we’re not supposed to be seeing each other,” said Adela Wagner, an administrator for the Brooklyn mutual aid Facebook group. “But what’s most important is that we don’t forget each other. In Italy, they’re playing concerts from their balconies, they’re singing… Here, we’re doing online classes and buying groceries and donating money… It’s really blossoming, the resilience of people.”

The coronavirus crisis has led to a sense of mass isolation. As people retreat into quarantine, lock their doors, and practice social distancing, it can feel like we’re becoming more disconnected and disparate than ever before. But people are also coming together—providing aid to one another, donating time and money to help those who suddenly find themselves in desperate need, and reaffirming that none of us are alone.

“Community is absolutely imperative right now,” said Avery Shannon, the 21-year-old co-founder of the Vancouver Facebook group. “We can choose fear and division—we can choose to hoard toilet paper—or we can build a different narrative.” When you visit the group on Facebook, the first thing you see is the cover photo: a black-and-white pencil drawing that says “What if we refuse to walk alone?”

After Annie made her post, the response was immediate. A co-worker had already brought over Tylenol, chicken noodle soup, and some snacks, but she was still missing toilet paper, sanitary products, a thermometer, allergy medication and other essentials.

“My daughter still believes in the tooth fairy,” she wrote in her post after listing the products she needed. “But because I am unable to leave my apartment… the tooth fairy missed our house.” Not only did several strangers bring her everything she asked for, but they also dropped off cash so that her daughter could get a visit from the tooth fairy that night.

“It’s important to continue to support each other,” Annie said. “Just having people to talk to… even just to think of friends in isolation, to send them care packages... someone brought me a magazine that I didn’t ask for, and that just meant the world to me.”

Chase Gray is another parent living in the Vancouver area—his son was born just seven months ago. “We were sick before my baby was,” he said. “But at two or three in the morning, he got a fever… he was coughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.” Even in the wee hours of the morning, Gray spent hours waiting on the line with telehealth, to no avail; he eventually had to call 911 to be connected with a healthcare professional.

“As soon as the stores opened, I sent my partner to get some baby Tylenol, but there were none at any of the stores that were open," he said. “So I started calling around, and they had none in any of the stores that were going to open. There was no medicine anywhere. But the day before, my friend Avery had invited me to the COVID-19 Facebook page.” Even though Gray and his family lived over an hour outside of Vancouver, strangers searched pharmacies and drug stores all over and managed to deliver medicine to the family in under an hour.

This sort of kindness has been quietly on display in cities and towns everywhere. In Toronto, a young photographer and professor active in the QTBIPOC (queer, trans, black, Indigenous, people of color) community—Ellie Ade Ker, 27, and Yann Garcia, 23—have dedicated countless hours, and more than $1,500 CAD of their own money, to providing home-cooked meals, grocery runs, and aid to vulnerable people across Toronto.

“We put out a post over the CareMongering group asking if people needed food if they weren’t able to leave their apartment,” Ade Ker said . “We’ve been coordinating deliveries, doing grocery runs, sending money…We’ve ensured that 30 people have enough food for two to three days.”

Ade Ker and Garcia describe this sort of charity as second nature. “The reality for so many queer, trans, black, and marginalized people is that we’re very familiar with what it means to not have access to food on a regular basis, to go hungry,” she said. “And what it means to show up for our people. We know we aren’t going to let this mom and her kids go hungry, so yeah, we’ll go do this grocery run. We’ll go make some extra food. The fact that so many of us have had to struggle with poverty, homelessness, with being on the margins—this has been our reality for decades. We’ve had to organize these systems to survive.”

They cite programs like Unit2, a community resource in Toronto that has provided dinners, community, and mutual aid for years. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, they are now delivering and donating food to marginalized community members all over Toronto.

“Community is a mechanism for survival,” Ade Ker said. “We have to come together for the collective good. We’re all we have.”

Follow Rayne Fisher-Quann on Twitter.