Islington mutual aid shows ‘there is such thing as London society’ during coronavirus crisis
- Credit: Archant
For many people, the lockdown fell like a thick black curtain over the immediate future. The most vulnerable to the virus, those over 70 or with underlying health conditions, were told to stay at home and that even a simple trip to the shop for a carton of milk could result in death.
In came the mutual aid groups (MAGs). In Islington, like boroughs across the entire country, hundreds of volunteers scrambled together to form groups on WhatsApp and Facebook.
Within days, volunteers were canvassing their neighbours’ doors to see who needed help and organising deliveries of food and medicine.
Since then, just one group, the Caledonian and Barnsbury MAG, has helped over 800 people and delivered over 2,800 food packages, with more than 500 books delivered to Pentonville Prison library.
There are 12 MAGs in Islington and more than 2,000 across the UK.
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“I think it has been incredible how quickly MAG formed,” said Megan Montibert, a chef in fine dining who became a food bank coordinator for the Caledonian and Barnsbury MAG.
“Dealing with the food bank side of things has been amazing to see how people have been reaching out to donate whatever they can from herbs in their gardens and tinned foods from their cupboard, to all the volunteers giving their time.”
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Early in the lockdown, David Hook hosted a virtual pub quiz: “We were looking to keep people entertained as well.
“To not just physically help people but to help people with mental health and help people stay together. It encourages a sense of community.”
Pauline Superville had recently lost her job and wanted to use her skills to help others.
“Being in solidarity and supporting others is something I like to do,” she said. “It made me feel better to help in my neighbourhood, also for my own mental health.”
Volunteers stressed mutual aid is not charity. It is not one group helping another but a community of people helping each other, where volunteers benefit from giving as much as from receiving.
The pandemic isolated people physically and socially, and at the same time, forced the cancellation of gatherings, from festivals to family visits to social movements – places and events that have always brought people together.
In the absence of all that, the MAGs have aimed to give people a space to connect with one other and a common purpose.
“London was once a bunch of villages,” said Daniele Orner, who uses her skills in data analysis to try and create community networks and friendships that last.
“One good thing this crisis has done is to highlight that this might still be true and that, even in central London, there is such a thing as society.”
Lawrence Pettener, an ex-Islington resident living in Malaysia, had been trying unsuccessfully to find paid-hourly workers to help his mother.
When the pandemic arrived, he reached out to the Caldeonian and Barnsbury MAG through their WhatsApp channel and received an immediate reply from Helena, who within hours was on a video call with Lawrence asking how she could help.
“Helena made my mother’s birthday,” said Lawrence. “Without her input, it would not have been anything like the joyful experience it was for her.
“The experience with another volunteer, Simon, while more brief, has also been excellent – contact, personability, tone, reliability. He fixed my mother’s lifeline, i.e. her WiFi connection, the same day as our contact.”
Many of the volunteers feel the MAGs should be a permanent fixture of community life.
“People don’t just need help in a pandemic,” said Felicity Cloake, a food writer who used her knowledge to find hard-to-get products when supermarket shelves were empty.
Though lockdown restrictions are now easing, the virus is still at large, and some fear the economic effects of the pandemic may stretch long into the future.
“We’re going into a global recession,” said Highbury East councillor Sue Lukes. “Lots of people don’t trust the government.
“They think they’re putting business interests before the interests of the vulnerable or the elderly. Vulnerable people are not going to be out there spending or drinking.
“They’re really scared about being forced out. We’re going to need mutual aid and I hope that it can carry on.”