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How to help people during the pandemic, one Google spreadsheet at a time

Thousands of volunteers in “mutual aid” groups are bringing groceries, medications, and more to vulnerable strangers.

A woman loads food packages into a car in Boston to deliver them to vulnerable immigrant families. 
Director Patricia Montes of Centro Presente loads food packages into a car in Boston to deliver them to vulnerable immigrant families.
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Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

It’s been replicating like crazy over the past few weeks, spreading from person to person, city to city, country to country.

The coronavirus, yes — but also the mutual aid meant to combat it.

By this point, many of you may have seen the Google Docs, Google Forms, and other spreadsheets circulating online with the words “mutual aid” in the title. That’s a fancy way of saying we should all help each other get through this pandemic, giving what we can to neighbors and strangers alike. In these shared documents, thousands of people are jotting down their contact information and offering to do just that.

Because the coronavirus puts older and immunocompromised people at especially high risk, it’s a good idea for them to limit their exposure by staying home as much as possible. So healthy volunteers are signing up to go buy groceries and medications and deliver straight to their doorsteps.

In just a few weeks, such a vast profusion of spreadsheets has sprung up that some organizers have created meta-spreadsheets meant to compile them in one place. One such monster list contains links to more than 140 mutual aid groups spanning many US states, plus additional links for groups in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

“It’s a beautiful flowering of mutual aid,” said Cindy Milstein, a Michigan-based organizer and author who compiled the mega-list. “It’s a way to organize, but it’s also a way for people to remember the ability of humans to be kind and empathetic and dignified. People are desperate to help each other right now.”

Mutual aid centers around the idea that we should all share with each other reciprocally and that we can help meet one another’s needs in a self-directed, grassroots way, rather than relying exclusively on top-down government solutions that may come too slowly, or fail to offer adequate support to the most vulnerable people.

For communities that already felt neglected prior to the coronavirus — especially people of color and disabled, LGBTQ, and low-income people — there may be an extra layer of fear around relying solely on the government to deliver what’s needed during this pandemic. So it makes sense that we’re seeing a wellspring of mutual aid groups devoted to meeting the needs of these particular groups, such as immunocompromised people.

The flurry of activity we’re seeing now has robust intellectual roots. Mutual aid efforts have long been a staple of left-wing organizing, often operating under the slogan “solidarity, not charity.” But the thousands of volunteers who are signing up now aren’t united by a singular ideological commitment.

Some are religious leaders who feel their faith tradition compels them to fill in the gaps until a more robust state response can make sure everyone’s needs are met. Others are anarchists who don’t believe we should be relying on hierarchical government fixes in the first place. Most are simply people who are looking around, seeing a tragedy unfolding before them, and yearning to help their fellow human beings in any way they can.

The coronavirus mutual aid groups, explained

The number of mutual aid groups has grown rapidly; some states and even some cities have several of them.

Washington, DC, for example, now has more than a dozen groups divided by neighborhood, each containing the names of dozens of people and how they can help (“Whatever it takes!” some say).

One group started up when Alli McGill, the director of care at The Table Church, tweeted on March 12, “If you are in DC and are in the at-risk demographic and need errands run so you can limit exposure — will you email me?” A few days and a thousand retweets later, her message yielded a far greater response than she’d anticipated.

“Instead of getting people who need things, I got people who want to help. I got 2,500 people,” she said. “It’s actually quite beautiful. There’s some real community-driven altruism springing up in response to this crisis.”

So far, her group has delivered groceries and medications to several dozen individuals in the DC area. Volunteers often pay for the supplies at the store and then get reimbursed by the individuals, if they can afford it. If they can’t, then a church fund pays for it.

The group also offers other kinds of help, from dog-walking to spiritual support. They make wellness phone calls to check on people’s physical and mental health, or “buddy up” for regular video chats to alleviate loneliness. Volunteers are busy papering the outdoors with flyers and distributing disinfected cards to neighbors to make sure everyone knows these free services are available.

The challenges of offering mutual aid during a pandemic

Thinking about how we can help our broader community, rather than just focusing on individual risk, is definitely the right spirit to adopt. That said, we can’t let altruism overtake evidence-based precautions. Volunteers eager to help vulnerable people might be carrying the virus even if they don’t have any symptoms, so they need to remember to listen to public health experts’ guidelines.

“I think it’s a good and even an essential service, as vulnerable individuals need basic supplies and they should be protected from exposure as much as possible,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “However, there is still a risk of asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission that is hard to quantify.”

Rasmussen said that both those delivering and those receiving supplies should be vigilant about washing their hands and maintaining physical distance. Volunteers should disinfect supplies before delivering them, and leave them on the doorstep rather than interacting directly with the recipients or going inside.

Mutual aid group organizers generally seem to be aware of the recommended precautions. The Table Church’s group sends out the following reminder to all volunteers who sign up to make deliveries:

It is crucial to remember that when we’re fulfilling these volunteer requests we MUST USE RIGOROUS HYGIENE PROTOCOLS. Please bring and generously use hand sanitizer, or gloves if you have them. Wash your hands regularly. Do not volunteer if you’re feeling ill. If you are picking up/delivering groceries or supplies please wipe down the bag with some sort of disinfectant like Lysol or Clorox.

“You cannot eliminate risk, but you can reduce it,” McGill said in a phone interview as she drove to a senior citizen’s house to deliver food. She added that she believes grassroots organizing is a necessity right now.

“I don’t think the local government can handle running groceries to all the people at risk,” she said. “I’m compelled by my faith to serve — to try to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”

In addition to the challenge of ensuring everyone’s safety, there’s the challenge of figuring out how to do mutual aid without reinventing the wheel. When is it more effective to look to the organizers and organizations who’ve been doing similar work in a local community long before the coronavirus came knocking?

McGill, who sends out an email with volunteer opportunities each night, has been increasingly directing volunteers to partner with established groups like the Capital Food Bank and the Department of Aging and Community Living. At this point, she said, 75 percent of her group’s volunteer efforts are working with preexisting organizations in a complementary way.

But mutual aid groups can also offer other services that such organizations may not offer. “It isn’t just sharing material things,” Milstein said. “People are sharing wisdom about how to make your own mask or how to use 3D printers to make respirators.” Some are offering to connect those who need spiritual support with those who can offer it. “It’s existential and emotional, too.”

While a traditional charity and a mutual aid group might in some cases be doing the same physical activity — say, getting food to people who need it — what distinguishes them is the framing philosophy. A traditional charity pays staff members to give support to recipients; there’s a giver and a receiver. But mutual aid is an entirely voluntary exchange among equals, and it’s careful to avoid setting up a paternalistic or hierarchical relationship between them. There isn’t a giver and a receiver, because the assumption is that every single person has something to give others.

“It’s not about ‘I’m the savior and you’re the poor person who needs help.’ It’s about how we can reciprocally help each other without profit,” Milstein said.

The ways people help each other might not be equal in kind — it’s not like each person is giving the other the same resource in the same amount — but the idea is that that’s okay because we all contribute in different ways.

In this model, the older or immunocompromised person who stays home is contributing to our community-wide effort to stop the virus. Epidemiologically, that’s totally accurate, because they’re reducing the risk that they’ll end up needing hospitalization and possibly intensive care. That frees up beds for people who do get very sick to receive the treatment they’ll need in a hospital.

During the pandemic, anything we can do to ensure the health care system doesn’t become overloaded is an act of altruism — and that includes staying home and asking others for help.

Mutual aid has a long and fascinating history

In a very basic sense, mutual aid is something we’ve been doing for millennia. The desire to help one another directly and reciprocally is a basic human impulse.

But one approach to mutual aid comes out of a specific intellectual tradition, which predates the age of Google Docs and shareable spreadsheets.

In 1902, the Russian anarcho-communist philosopher Peter Kropotkin published an essay collection titled Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. He and his book are explicitly mentioned in some of the coronavirus mutual aid spreadsheets.

In contrast to Charles Darwin, whose then-ascendant evolutionary theory emphasized competition — think “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” — Kropotkin argued that survival is based on solidarity, or as he put it, “the close dependency of everyone’s happiness upon the happiness of all.”

When he looked at nature, he noticed profound cooperation between and among species, and argued that these conditions are what enable us to thrive. His book offers examples both from natural ecosystems and from human social life.

“In his time period, they were building the railroad, and he talked about how it makes no sense for everybody to go off and compete to build their own little track — they wouldn’t connect up!” Milstein explained. “But when we cooperate, we can all move around.”

Kropotkin’s vision led him to issue a clear prescription: “Practicing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence.”

This prescription has long shaped activism among anarchists, said Milstein, the author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations. It’s also been a mainstay in communities that have often felt abandoned or marginalized by state institutions.

For example, the Black Panthers had a mutual aid program, including a free breakfast program meant to bolster the health of undernourished black youth. The LGBTQ community and the disability community, likewise, know what it’s like to have to rely on themselves for resources — and thus are well-practiced at organizing mutual aid.

“These are the groups we should be looking to now,” Milstein said, “because they actually have decades or hundreds of years of experience of having to rely on mutual aid to take care of each other.”

Of course, this isn’t to say that all, or even many, of the groups that have formed to combat coronavirus are driven by Kropotkin’s philosophy or its intellectual lineage. (Most people signing up have probably never heard of Kropotkin.) Some people have gotten involved through their faith or church; others because of their political or ideological commitments.

At bottom, it may not even matter much. Many people just want to help, and these groups have been a great vehicle for the pandemic-induced upsurge of altruism.

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