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Stepping Up

As government leaders bungle the coronavirus response, there’s hope in mutual aid

Once, when I was a kid, I got so sick that everyone told me I would probably die. Doctors and family members repeated that likelihood frequently over the year I was in the hospital and during that time I formed an idea of what the afterlife would be. A lot like my little isolation room, I figured, lonely and forsaken even by my own body.

Anyone who has lived through days like that knows how utterly hopeless it feels. It’s as if you have been written off early so that when the axe finally drops it won’t be so hard on everybody else. I got better, but the experience colored how I look at life and anticipate death, scarred my body inside and out. So it is with visceral horror that I’ve been watching the very powerful people of this world acting so cavalierly toward the coronavirus threat, which by every credible estimate will send millions of people down a path similar to the one I walked when I was fifteen.

We have every reason to be afraid. Our elected leaders are lying to us about how they are handling the coronavirus, while simultaneously failing to act on our behalf. The spreading disease is highly communicable, has no cure or vaccine yet, and has led Iran to dig mass graves large enough to be captured on satellite images. For some, catching coronavirus will be a death sentence. And not just for the elderly, but for people of all ages with weak immune systems or an existing medical condition. (Asthma, for example, which more people have in our increasingly polluted world, is of particular concern, though the medical community disagrees about how much). Young medical workers caring for the ill are in danger, too. For others, catching it might mean lifelong damage to the lungs. And for everyone else—the lucky ones who survive coronavirus with no lasting physical harm, or those who don’t catch it at all? They’re in for scars that are invisible to the naked eye: heartbreak over the death of a loved one, for example, or simply the trauma of knowing so many people in the world have perished. All of us will be touched by this pandemic.

It is dawning on many Americans that having millions of people uninsured and unable to afford medical care is not someone else’s problem.

What I want to draw your attention to, what I think is getting lost in the data and punditry that mainstream media prefers above all, is how readily groups in the United States have formed to step in where the government has failed. While our elected leaders lie and dither, people across the country are starting up mutual aid groups to keep the people in their communities safe. Searching through social media platforms and news sources shows that mutual aid groups are operating in at least thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia. They’ve been jumpstarted by students, volunteer organizations, and political groups. They’re pooling their money, buying groceries for people who need help, and doing what they can to keep everyone fed and healthy. Stories about mutual aid are popping up the world over, as are ones about people acting individually to care for their neighbors. There are instances of people coming together quickly to form new groups and ones where people have repurposed an existing group. They’re not covered much by the mainstream media, though they sometimes make it into the local news, student newspapers, and anti-capitalist publications such as It’s Going Down, which published a partial list of mutual aid groups operating throughout the country. Efforts to support people on a larger scale are underway, too, like groups organizing emergency funding for restaurant workers and domestic workers.

These groups will not solve the unfolding crisis and they are no replacement for care administered at scale by officials empowered by the government and funded with tax dollars. If a local TV station catches wind of one and calls it “heartwarming,” understand that is horseshit. It is emergency action on a shoestring. Understand, also, that some officials will actively work against these groups, out of spite or embarrassment or some other small and self-interested impulse, as one councillor in the United Kingdom is accused of doing. But I’m drawing a lot of hope from the upswing in mutual support because it reveals a basic human impulse that lives just below the surface of our broken and unhappy society. Instead of continuing to believe that ideas like community, togetherness, and human connection are stupid dreams for sappy Pollyannas, this period of crisis shows that they are in fact binding impulses that live on even when every message shoved on us since birth says they should not. And I’m drawing hope from mutual aid groups because organizers say they’re necessary steps for something larger—such as, for example, executing a general strike. We could be drawing closer to widespread activism demanding universal health care, including free coronavirus testing and treatment. It is dawning on many Americans that having millions of people uninsured and unable to afford medical care is not someone else’s problem—it’s a public health concern for all of us.

One of the startling effects of the present emergency is that all kinds of measures that have been off the table—deemed “impossible” by conservatives and complacent liberals and moderates—have suddenly become possible. There are moves to halt evictions, measures proposing emergency funding for everyone who can’t work from home, and demands for any vaccine to be free for every single person in the United States, citizen or not. So many ways of making this a more humane society were never truly impossible to afford. They were blocked by a political establishment that prefers to spend public funds on tax cuts and corporate subsidies and war.

We are living through an age when some of us want to reclaim the humanity we’re born with, which modern life seeks to crush whenever and wherever it can.

With sustained popular activism, we may also be able to swing public opinion back away from the contempt for government solutions that long has been a tenet of American conservatism, intensified by Ronald Reagan, and ratified by Bill Clinton’s claim in the 1990s that “the era of big government is over.” Hatred of government is such an immediate reflex in Republican administrations that few people reacted when the Trump administration in 2018 closed the office in the National Security Council devoted to preparing for disease outbreaks such as the current coronavirus pandemic. We are seeing the effects of federal government incompetence in real time, and the result is ugly.

Of course, national emergencies can also be used to turn government in the wrong direction. But even if Trump and his confederates try to use the coronavirus crisis to erode civil liberties, as Bush did following the crisis of 9/11, even if he tries to cancel the 2020 election and stay in office until he croaks, we will only be the stronger if we all reclaim the connectivity that is the whole point of having a society in a first place. We’ll be a lot better off if we stick together rather than doubling down on the twisted fantasy of the rugged individual.

It strikes me that we are living through an age when some of us want to reclaim the humanity we’re born with, which modern life seeks to crush whenever and wherever it can. At the same time, some want to deny our common interests so strenuously that they still believe that work is the main reason to live and money the only worthwhile pursuit. It seems to me that this is at the heart of the struggle between political parties, with Bernie Sanders on one side arguing for a society in which everyone matters and collective action is possible, and Biden and Trump on the other end, saying, well, we can’t really afford to care for everyone, and demands for social justice and equity are unreasonable, if not dangerous.

When the coronavirus threats begin to recede, my greatest hope is that those who survive can hang on to the idea that we are in this together, that government can promote our common health and prosperity, and that a lot of solutions dismissed as unreasonable are, in fact, quite possible. There will be powerful pressures to return to “normalcy.” It will be our responsibility to insist we can’t go back to the way things were.