We need to organize community pandemic responses
2020 is almost over, but here in the US, the pandemic’s just getting warmed up. Several vaccines are in the process of approval and early distribution, but it will take months to distribute them to enough people to make a major difference in the spread of COVID-19. In the meantime, the winter spike in confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continues. How we respond to the pandemic over the next few months will determine just how catastrophic a toll it takes on our communities and society.
At this point, government interventions such as mitigation efforts and relief programs will be insufficient to stop community spread or relieve the social and economic fallout of the pandemic while we await full vaccine distribution. We should still support such interventions because they are currently the best chance we have of organizing a massive, effective, and relatively rapid pandemic response. But these interventions will be insufficient to meet the growing need for collective action in the face of the common threat of COVID-19.
Governments supposedly exist to help their people, especially in times of great public need. Why can’t we just ask politicians to help us respond to this threat and hope for the best?
Some local and state politicians are actively fighting against mitigation measures due to pressure from affected businesses and the lobbying efforts and deceptive messaging pushed by right-wing think tanks. Other local and state politicians are struggling to implement mitigation measures in the absence of adequate funding, clear and decisive enforcement mechanisms, and support from neighboring decision-making bodies.
At the federal level, the government has done far more to help billionaires and large corporations than workers or small businesses. This may start to change somewhat in late January. But there will be a lot of pandemic-related deaths between now and then. And the federal response will still be insufficient to the task, even if it’s better in some ways than the current response.
Between the lack of effective government interventions, and the astroturf reopen and maskless movements that are actively interfering with what interventions do exist, government intervention will clearly be insufficient to respond to the scope and depth of the crisis in the crucial months between now and spring of 2021 when vaccines are more widely distributed.
If the government can’t handle this crisis, then what can we possibly hope to do about it?
It turns out that we can do a lot.
For months now, I’ve been stuck in a vicious cycle of pandemic doom scrolling. I read the latest pandemic news, applaud any mitigation measures, and lament the fact that there is so much resistance to even the most basic mitigation measures. But now that the long-anticipated winter spike is actually starting, I’ve come to realize that staying on top of the news, discussing it with my friends, and following mitigation measures in my own life isn’t enough.
I want to participate in collective action to stop this virus from bringing sickness and death into millions of lives in the next several months. I believe that there are millions of other people in this country who feel the same way. We want to do as much as we can to support and participate in an effective, evidence-based, collective response to this catastrophic threat to public health.
Since the collective actions organized by the government aren’t measuring up to the task, we’re going to have to organize community responses to the pandemic to pick up the slack.
Community Pandemic Responses
Mitigation involves any direct action taken to slow or stop the spread of the virus. This includes masks, physical distancing, limiting gathering sizes, modifying or closing the operations of places where people usually gather socially, etc. If the main point of an action is to stop the spread of the virus, that action is mitigation.
Mutual aid involves people taking collective action to support each other in meeting everyone’s needs. This includes sharing food and other supplies, working together to meet social, economic, health, childcare, and other needs, etc. If the main point of an action is for people to work together to help each other meet their needs, that action is mutual aid.
Some community pandemic responses serve as both mitigation and mutual aid. For example, helping people avoid eviction and homelessness by connecting them with rent assistance, utility assistance, or eviction resistance, serves the dual role of mitigation and mutual aid. It’s mutual aid because we’re working together to support someone who’s suffering economic distress during the pandemic. And it’s mitigation because preventing a spike in evictions will help limit COVID-19’s spread.
Some local and state governments are taking action to support various mitigation measures and provide some form of relief to workers and businesses that are struggling right now. Local, state, and federal governments should all be doing more on both the mitigation front and the relief front. One important action that all communities can take is to demand more mitigation and relief from the government. Regardless of what’s happening in terms of government response, though, there are many ways you can take direct action to support mitigation and support mutual aid relief efforts in your area.
What are some ways that individuals and community organizations can support mitigation efforts?
That depends on what’s already happening where you live. Start by reading news articles and statements from local and state officials to determine what’s currently happening in your area. Look for any available data about what places are currently the biggest potential exposure locations in your area.
For example, the biggest potential exposure locations in Illinois are currently schools, business or retail, and hospital or clinic. Local circumstances may vary, though. The biggest potential exposure locations in Illinois Region 5, where I live, are factories, schools, and places of worship. If there’s a potential exposure location that’s high on the list in both your local area and statewide, that may be a good place to start. Otherwise, start where you think you’ll have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time.
If you live in an area that’s lacking major mitigation measures such as a mask mandate, limits on large gatherings, remote learning, suspension of indoor dining, etc., you can advocate for those things. Contact local (both municipal and county) and state officials to demand better mitigation policies. This includes contacting school boards that vote in favor of in-person learning when community spread is high in their area and asking them to transition to full remote while community spread remains high. Even if you don’t have a student in the school district, you can express your concern to local school boards that their decision to continue in-person learning at this time is endangering students, teachers, and staff, and contributing to community spread in your area.
When contacting officials, you may find it helpful to include evidence in support of such policies. But for better or worse, most people are swayed by stories more than statistics. Whether or not you include supporting evidence, explain why you personally are concerned and want more mitigation. If possible, circulate petitions or engage in other collective actions to pressure local and state officials to take action. Public officials are more likely to listen to a group of constituents with similar demands acting collectively rather than isolated individuals complaining without any coordination or proposed solutions.
If you live in an area that has major mitigation measures in place, but lacks effective enforcement of those measures, then do what you can to support enforcement. Contact local and state officials to demand better enforcement. In some cases, that may require passing special resolutions or ordinances on the local level in support of what is in place on the state level.
For example, here in Jackson County, Illinois, the county board is about to vote on a resolution to provide an enforcement mechanism for state mitigation measures such as mask mandates and suspension of indoor dining. If county residents contact the county board to express support of this or other approaches to enforcing mitigation, that may affect whether or not board members vote for it.
Whether or not there are any government-led mitigation measures in place in your area, you and your friends and neighbors can organize community-led mitigation efforts.
Community-led mitigation efforts rely on the collective action of community members, rather than government policy or enforcement, to mitigate the spread of the virus. This can include direct mitigation measures such as distributing masks and sanitizer to those who can’t afford them and educating the public in their use and importance. It can also include organizing relief efforts such as food distribution, rent assistance, utility assistance, child care, etc so that no one in your community resorts to unsafe practices in a desperate effort to meet unmet needs. It can even include finding creative ways to apply social and economic pressure to individuals, businesses, and government officials in order to get them to stop behaviors and practices that encourage the spread of the virus.
If a local school district is conducting in-person learning during a period of high community spread, and enough teachers decide that they’re being told to work in unsafe conditions, the teachers can go on strike. Students, parents, and local community members can support striking teachers in seeking remote learning or other accommodations to ensure the safety of students, teachers, and staff.
If local restaurants and other businesses are rejecting mitigation measures such as masks and suspension of indoor dining, community members can organize boycotts, demonstrations, call-ins, sit-ins, and other creative ways of calling attention to the business’ unethical practices.
In some cases, simply informing the public of which school districts, restaurants, businesses, and other local places aren’t adhering to evidence-based mitigation practices can be a simple but effective means of applying pressure for change. Articles and social media posts can use photographs and stories to describe who’s defying the mitigation efforts and who’s being harmed by that unethical behavior. Telling a good story about the situation can convince the offenders to change their behavior, or at least convince more of the community in your area to support mitigation enforcement.
Here in Illinois Region 5, I’ve started the Illinois Region 5 Mitigation Compliance list to track which local restaurants are complying with or rejecting public health guidelines for our region and state. Businesses that comply with the mitigation measures are rewarded with community support. People choose them over their competitors for take-out, delivery, gift cards, etc. Businesses that fail to comply are avoided and boycotted until they make more ethical choices about their adherence to public health guidelines. It’s a small step, but I’ve already received feedback from numerous locals about how it helps them both to avoid unethical and unsafe restaurants and to support those that are engaging in ethical and safe business practices.
At every turn, review what places are currently the biggest potential exposure locations, and what actions you can take individually or collectively to mitigate the spread of the virus there. Much like scientific responses to the virus itself, community mitigation should be based on good evidence and adjusted regularly in response to new evidence.
In order for mitigation measures to be sustainable and successful, it’s also absolutely vital to demand relief programs from local, state, and federal governments, and to organize our own mutual aid relief efforts on top of whatever half-measures various government bodies implement. Mitigation measures such as mask mandates, remote learning, suspension of indoor dining, and other restrictions on individuals, organizations, and businesses create hardships for many workers and communities. They also often require special resources to implement, such as cases where some households and entire school districts have worse internet access than others due to pre-existing inequalities. If we want mitigation to be successful, it must be accompanied by adequate relief that effectively addresses these hardships and resource needs.
So far, in most cases, local, state, and federal governments have not been providing that relief. Therefore, to meet our needs in the face of this worsening crisis, we’ll need to rely on community mutual aid.
Community Mutual Aid
What are some ways that individuals and communities can support mutual aid as a community response to the many social and economic problems created by the pandemic and the failure of governments to address those problems?
The good news on this front is that in many places, there are already mutual aid efforts and other community relief efforts in place. If you’re looking for existing mutual aids projects in your area, there are a few places to find them online:
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is a grassroots disaster relief network based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action.
Covid Mutual Aid USA is a collective of volunteers who are devoted to equity, advocacy, inclusivity, and mobilization.
Both of these sites include directories of local mutual aid projects. If you can’t find any local mutual aid efforts in your area, try asking around. Some people in your community may be doing something along the lines of mutual aid without calling it that. They may be sharing food, clothes, or other resources among people they know, people in their neighborhood, etc. If you can’t find any such projects, consider starting a new mutual aid project.
If all else fails, there are almost certainly charitable organizations like food banks, homeless shelters, and other aid organizations in your area that could benefit from your support. These organizations lack the community-building component of mutual aid, instead relying on charitable donations as a band-aid solution to meet unmet needs in the community. But meeting those needs is better than not meeting them. So if you can’t find any mutual aid groups or networks in your area, charitable organizations are a good place to start. While you’re volunteering or donating there, you may want to ask around and see if anyone else in your community is interested in a mutual aid approach to meeting community needs. Most charity meets needs in the moment through charitable donations, whereas mutual aid seeks to meet needs in the long term by building capacity in the community for people to meet their needs collectively.
Where to Start
Long lists of ideas for community pandemic response can seem overwhelming. They don’t need to be. Start by talking to the people closest to you: your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and anyone else you may know well enough to talk to about community pandemic response.
Once you’ve found other people who share your interest in community pandemic responses, make sure to see what resources already exist in your area. There may not be many resources specifically related to community mitigation since that’s a new need. You and your friends and neighbors may have to organize that, either on your own or in cooperation with existing groups that support greater mitigation. For mutual aid, be sure to start by looking around for existing projects and efforts. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, and existing projects can benefit greatly from your involvement.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to do it all. Your role in community pandemic response may just be to do one single task well. Or in some cases, your task may simply be to benefit from other people’s community pandemic response so that you survive the pandemic. Help where you can, but don’t let the pressures of the times we live in lead you into burnout. Start from a place of sustainable effort and involvement, and participate in community pandemic response as much as you can without overextending yourself. A little effort sustained over a long period of time is usually more helpful than an intense burst of activity followed by burnout.
If we work together from a place of sustainable community involvement, we can do some amazing work to reduce the amount of harm experienced in our communities and society in the coming months.