Staying together while keeping apart: the COVID-19 Canberra mutual aid network

Rebecca Vassarotti 25 March 2020
Volunteers working hard in Bodalla

These volunteers helped with bushfires relief in Bodalla. Now Australians are answering the call again due to COVID-19. Photo: Facebook.

COVID-19 means our lives changing day by day and hour by hour. As this happens, many people are trying to work out what this means for how we engage with our community. The need for us to be spatially distant and to socially isolate means that many people’s normal networks and safety nets are no longer in place. This means we are needing to think creatively about how we support each other in a time where we need to keep our distance at a physical level.

Crises often show us the character of a community, and here in Canberra there is something pretty special happening on a suburb and city level.

Neighbours are working together to establish new ways to connect and support each other. One way this is happening is through the establishment of suburb level mutual aid groups.

Over the last two weeks, a mutual aid network has emerged across the Canberra community (email canberracoronamutualaid@gmail.com to learn more), which is aimed at providing a new way for people at a street and suburb level to connect and support each other.

This started with an internet post, and a spreadsheet with a suggestion for people who could put up their hand to coordinate action in their suburb. Within a week, groups had formed right across the city.

Getting involved in my local group has been an inspiring and uplifting experience at a time when positive action has been much needed. The experience of our group has mirrored the experience of groups all across the city.

Within a couple of days, a group of strangers that lived close by had made contact and met virtually around what needed to happen and how to get started. Reaching out to a group who was a few days ahead of us, we were able to adapt their resources, and were quickly able to develop a Facebook page, and online forms for people who were able to help out their neighbours and for people who needed support and assistance.

A flier was developed, resources found to print fliers, and over the last week most residents across our two suburbs have been provided with information letting them know that their neighbourhood was there to support them and inviting them to get involved.

The response to people across the suburbs has been overwhelming. The list of people who want to connect and want to help their neighbours is long. At this point, there aren’t many people who need help but many people have reached out to say how reassuring it is to know that this is occurring, even if they don’t need it right now.

There is still much to do. In addition to providing material supports for people who might need it, what is becoming clear that we will need to think about how to support people over the long term. This will include how to provide information and share ideas. There will be a need to link people to more formal groups and organisations who are better suited to meet complex needs. An early need that is emerging is how to support people’s mental health and wellbeing and how to keep people entertained. We are all on a crash course learning about online tools to support communication, organisation and connection.

The idea of mutual aid is not new. It’s an approach that focuses on reciprocal relationships and creating joint responsibility at a local level. These extraordinary times have created a situation where our need to connect and look after each other has never been more important.

If you want to find out more about mutual aid groups operating in your suburb, check out the updated list of activity here. There is a Canberra-wide Facebook page with a range of information, and suburb groups have also established Facebook Pages (all listed on the document).


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