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While the first priority is responding to urgent needs, for many involved, they hope the bonds built in communities will outlast this current crisis.

Noah Goldman is a bar worker who describes himself as “the person who happened to set up a Facebook group” on 12th March. That group, Bristol Community Care – Covid-19 Mutual Aid, now has thousands of members and has helped spawn a Facebook group for almost all postcode areas in Bristol.

“I was talking to a friend in Italy about how they were dealing with the outbreak, and thought we need to do something now to collectively defend ourselves,” he says. The response has been overwhelming. “People have organised in an organic way that I wouldn’t have considered a possibility last week,” he adds. “Where the government has failed, we are now looking across the street for answers.” He’s now buckling down to support the BS5 group, which has one thousand members. 

As to be expected, the rush to respond has left some of the Facebook groups feeling slightly chaotic and crammed full of requests, links and comments. They have gone viral. As well as those looking to help out, there are requests for assistance and advice from more vulnerable members of the community; including how to deal with a housemate who has a cough but isn’t taking the pandemic seriously, or elderly neighbours who need help with things like shopping and walking the dog. 

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Time to get organised

Efforts are now underway to organise a new mass movement in a way that could be sustained during the pandemic.

Becky Lewis-Jones set up BS3 Community Covid-19 on 13th March. She had been self-isolating but has since tested negative. She appreciated the support of family and friends, but thought “what about people who don’t have a network?”. Less than a week later this group has 2,700 members, who are thinking the same thing. 

Becky is run off her feet, coordinating the group every moment when not at her full-time job. “It’s phenomenal, I think we are going to come out of this with a very different community, having built life-long ties.” But she knows that in the immediacy, “this is the kind of thing that can be overwhelming for people”. Her main focus is to set up a team to administer and support the set up of street level groups. “It’s not going to work if it’s centralised, and if neighbours take it on, that’ll help grow trust and effectiveness.”

With all the groups, one of the first steps is collecting people’s details: address, availability to volunteer, if they have a car, what type of support they can give – from walking a dog for a neighbour in isolation, to being on hand in emergencies and chatting with vulnerable locals. 

Clusters of roads have been allocated and people have moved to WhatsApp to streamline communications. While Facebook has been crucial for communicating and organising, it’s not used by everyone, so neighbours have sat outside two metres apart with masks on and organised themselves.

With this momentum has come the need to keep people’s information safe, manage resources and deliver the aid effectively.

Carys Kettlety has been getting involved, and now has more time on her hands. The cafe she works at in Bristol has closed and she has lost her job. She won’t be getting any financial support. 

“At first there was a lot of chaotic energy,” she says “which is great, but we need to be concerned about safeguarding and effectiveness.” Carys recognises that it’s important to not smother momentum with long conversations about decision-making processes and management, but they could be important in future. “We’re going to be in this for the long haul,” she says. Looking after one another to avoid burnout will be critical along with physical safety. 

“We should keep things at a grassroots local level, but not reinvent the wheel,” she adds. She’s involved with a local project, the National Food Service, who are working on a ‘meals on wheels’ service and hosted an online safeguarding training. In Carys’s view, established community organisations should help steward and train this legion of activists. “We have to use this energy wisely so it lasts.”

ACORN Bristol is the community union that has a reputation for effectively fighting for tenants and communities, in Bristol and beyond. Along with a national petition calling for the protection of renters, so far 500 Bristolians have volunteered to support ACORN’s response to coronavirus. “It’s pretty hectic,” says local organiser Aidan Cassidy, “But it shows that, when it comes down to it, people look out for each other.” 

Aidan sees ACORN’s strength as having the structures and experience to support the groups that have sprung up, and fill in the gaps. “We’re liasing with the organisers of local groups to build a live-updated map of areas that have distributed the advice and support leaflets and to target areas that are not covered yet.” A conference call last night discussed best practise on volunteer hygiene, safeguarding and communications. 

For now, the focus is on urgent needs, but amid the frantic activity is a sense of possibility, and that this crisis has thrown into relief long term problems. Noah says: “There will be a time after Covid-19. The problems that have exacerbated this crisis and hampered the official response will remain,” referring to precarious work and housing, an underfunded NHS and austerity. He adds: “My hope is that this experience, building relationships and power in our communities, creates potential for long term change.”

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