‘Like a near-death experience or a great loss or potentially fatal illness for an individual, collective disasters wake us up to who we are, who we can trust, what matters, and what doesn’t’ – Rebecca Solnit, Pandemic Solidarity (Maria Sitrin & Colectiva Sembrar, 2020, p. xiv)
A global pandemic that sweeps the nations of the world is a story from science fiction and pop culture. The possibility has been on our radar for years in theory, but now we are living through something that was unimaginable in practice. It feels surreal to look back to the turn of the year and imagine a world where the term Covid-19 did not even exist in mainstream discourse. In the UK, we watched the events that unfolded in China and saw the hearty Italians singing on their balconies in lockdown, shocked by the images we saw on the TV. The precious month where the UK government should have been planning and mobilising was wasted due to inaction. The result was mass gatherings taking place including 52,000 people attending an Atlético Madrid football match in Liverpool, the Covid-19 warning level being purposefully downgraded to avoid legal provisions that would be necessary at a higher level, the Prime Minister not attending crisis management meetings for weeks and the concept of herd immunity being floated and then quickly denied. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister boasted that he ‘shook hands with everybody’ ‘when he visited a Covid-19 ward, and then ended up in intensive care himself with the virus.
The result of this inaction was the stopping of community testing, a vast lack of PPE in hospitals, elderly being discharged from hospitals into care homes without prior testing and the virus spreading like wildfire through vulnerable populations. And one of the worst death rates in the world per capita, in a country where there is a fully-subsidised healthcare system. It is estimated by Prof. Neil Ferguson, the leader of the influential outbreak modelling group at Imperial College, that if the lockdown were to have been introduced one week earlier, as many as 20,000 lives could have been saved. While the public stepped up in their support for one another – through volunteering, a weekly ‘clap for carers’ show of appreciation, rainbows applauding the National Health Service (NHS) in people’s windows, and a new appreciation for frontline staff including shop workers and delivery drives – the government retreated. This is with a backdrop of the UK having experienced 10 years of harsh austerity policies, severe societal divides as a result of Brexit, an ever-deepening north-south divide where investment in former industrial areas in the north has been neglected, insecure work becoming ever more common with the gig economy and zero hours contracts, and a threat of the breakup of the union with Scottish independence in question. All of this provides the background for how youth volunteering has been embraced in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how its effects could change the face of youth participation in the future.
Those who have been most disproportionately affected by the pandemic are those lives of people who were already poor and/or marginalised in society. The Office for National Statistics has found that the residents of the poorest parts of England and Wales are dying at twice the rate of the residents of the richest, and one in three of the patients admitted to critical care units are from ethnic minorities, while making up only 13% of the population. Systemic issues of inequality and exclusion mean that not everyone experiences the pandemic in the same way, as existing inequalities are highlighted and exacerbated. The pandemic has heightened existing poverty and plunged others on the border into poverty. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates up to 7.7 million adults had reduced meal portion sizes or missed meals because of a lack of money during the pandemic, and up to 3.7 million adults sought charity food or used a food bank. That is a huge percentage of a population of almost 67 million. The Trussell Trust projects that almost 100,000 households received support from a food bank for the first time between April and June. It is not only these short-term effects that we must consider. Looming on the horizon is what may be the biggest unemployment rates in recorded history in the UK, with the brunt of that hitting young people. One UK city, Portsmouth, has already seen a more than 200% increase in youth unemployment since September 2019. The Trussell Trust estimates that by the end of 2020, ‘there will be further rises in poverty with 670,000 additional people classed as destitute by the end of 2020, meaning they cannot afford essentials like housing, energy and food’ (The Trussell Trust, September 2020). We have seen a surge in domestic violence cases during lockdown and the reliance of foodbanks has shot up since the start of the pandemic. With the rent eviction ban coming to an end in September 2020, it would not be a surprise to see a number of evictions set to take place soon, and we can predict that the lack of consistent education may lead to an attainment gap in young people’s education. Yet people come together in times of crisis. The war metaphor was quickly jumped upon during this pandemic and nothing unites like a war. It has been a bringing together of people pushing people to work together. And that’s what we have seen on an unprecedented scale in the UK.
Sophie lives in a village which is mainly inhabited by elderly people. Sophie and four of her friends set up a support system to help the people in her village who needed help during the pandemic. Sophie alone delivered over 3000 prescriptions and over 400 shopping lists! She also joined the Stockport Spidermen group, where they used their one-hour exercise allocation dressed as superheroes to cheer up people who were stuck inside. Sophie walked an incredible 100 km in 24 hours dressed up as Wonder Woman to fundraise over £50,000 for NHS charities. Sophie has made friends with one of her neighbours, 89-year-old Wendy, who writes Sophie a poem each time she goes to visit.
Volunteering in the UK saw a boost like no other in one of the largest mobilisations of people under capitalism ever seen in the UK. A mass movement was formed from local initiatives, whereby a global crisis was responded to by localised responses. Over 750,000 people signed up to the government-run NHS responder app whereby volunteers would respond to requests for food, prescriptions or pickups from people in their local communities that needed support. The Guardian speculates that ‘one of the pandemic’s legacies could be an injection of youth into the volunteering sector’ (Patrick Butler, Guardian, April 2020). Over 4000 mutual aid groups were established; ad-hoc organising groups that provided community action initiatives, many led by young people. These groups could be hyper-localised, organising in one street, or city-wide groups with tens of thousands of members. These happened everywhere – there are no parts of the UK where these did not spring up. According to the Office for National Statistics, by the start of April over 80% of people aged 70+ were offered support. This coming together has always been there – in families, through non-profits and religious organisations, through neighbourhood schemes – but this formalisation solidified existing informal networks. This collaborative, communal approach challenged the individualistic approach that we saw with the stockpiling of goods resulting in empty supermarket shelves, as well as being a coping mechanism for survival in uncertain and turbulent times.
Young people stepped up from the offset when mutual aid groups were springing up far and wide. I vividly remember seeing a BBC news piece where two 17-year-olds decided to set up their own support initiative after they saw an elderly man in their local supermarket struggling to find basics such as toilet roll and paracetamol. They decided to buy, make and deliver care packages to help the elderly and people shielding in their community. One of the young men reflected: ‘at this moment in time we really do need to pull together as a community and really support each other in vulnerable times like this.’ This inspired many others to do the same. While many young people created their own initiatives such as this one, some existing networks took on a change of focus or organisations adjusted their focus of work to engage with Covid-19 support. I conducted a survey of 97 young people aged 25 and under in the UK who had been involved in local volunteering efforts during March and July 2020 in response to the pandemic, in order to gain a better understanding of not only what young people were doing in their communities, but what motivated them to get involved and what they got out of the experience. I also spoke to some of the respondents in more detail through interviews and focus groups to gain a deeper understanding. I discovered that young people volunteered in an array of ways. The survey found that of those that shared their experiences, 56% helped with medication and shopping for people in need, 31% offered company and tackled loneliness and 39% helped in the distribution of food parcels. 11% signed up to the NHS responders programme while 11% unpaid caring duties. Additionally, young people took part in driving duties, making scrubs and masks, writing letters to the elderly, dog walking, volunteer coordination and collecting donations. There was something for everyone who wanted to be involved.
Social media played a significant role in young people’s volunteering experiences. If social media helped facilitate the social revolutions of the Arab Spring, then social media facilitated a volunteering revolution under Covid-19. From my survey, 63% of volunteering initiatives that the respondents were involved in were organised through social media, compared to 10% through flyers, and 9% through traditional media such as print, radio and TV. Of these, a greater proportion of young people initially got engaged after viewing a post when passing through social media (28%) than through being approached by someone to get involved (26%). An additional 24% searched for the information proactively. What stands out to me is that 56% of the young people surveyed got involved through informal networks, in contrast to 21% through a formal organisation. Young people stepped up in a way unknown in the past, as there was a space for them to contribute and make a difference to more vulnerable groups. Based on the answers I received from the young people I surveyed and interviewed, there were a number of reasons why young people got involved in their communities during the pandemic. Over 9 in 10 of respondents said their motivation was to help other people and 7 in 10 said it was because they believe in the spirit of volunteering. 4 in 10 respondents said they felt angry about the situation, and 3 in 10 wanted to develop new skills, while 1 in 10 wanted to make new friends. Through speaking to numerous young people volunteering on the frontlines, the sense of purpose and agency to act was significant. The common feeling of acting together not only supported others, but challenged their own feelings of helplessness or loneliness. 87% of respondents deemed their experience as excellent or very good, with no one saying it was terrible, and only one person said they wouldn’t repeat the experience again. When asked about the best part of their volunteering experience, commonalities that came up were helping others, meeting new people and making intergenerational friendships, seeing what they were doing making a difference, seeing the smiles of people they helped, and giving a feeling of solidarity and community spirit.
Solidarity is an action. Solidarity is both personal and political. Solidarity is about challenging the power structures in society, as opposed to charity that does not have an interest in challenging the structures behind solidarity. Solidarity is two-way and bottom up. What we have seen during the last months is not only practical solidarity, but ethical and political solidarity. Mutual aid is a phenomenon that has moved from the periphery into the mainstream. The young people participating in volunteering were doing so in a two-way system. As one young person reflected: ‘I think for me, mutual aid isn’t so much about volunteering, because this very much puts you in the position of the ‘helper’ assisting someone who is vulnerable. In many cases, the relationship has been a great deal more mutual than this.’ While many young people started volunteering as a way to help others, they found what they gained just as valuable. Another young person told us their story: ‘I was a part of the help group in which volunteers delivered shopping/medication to the elderly and vulnerable, but then I was approached by one of the leaders of the group who asked if I was interested in becoming a buddy to an elderly lady who lives alone, which I did! I’ve been calling this lady once or twice a week just for a chat and as I lost the last of my grandparents earlier this year, it’s helped me as much as it has helped her if I’m honest.’ Intergenerational connection has been a running theme throughout mutual aid efforts. 7 in 10 young people worked with elderly people, with countless stories of new friendships made across age lines. Many young people were able to combat their own loneliness or helplessness through local community volunteering. One respondent shared: ‘Covid-19 has really made me connect with my community, which is probably the only positive out of the situation, but I think it’s kept a lot of people going, including myself’. There has been a huge amount of loss during 2020, and people who have lost loved ones themselves have been helped through caring and comforting others.
Jack was inspired by a letter that was sent through his door from a neighbour who offered to help other people in his street during lockdown. As there wasn’t a community group in Jack’s area to help vulnerable people who were shielding, he decided to set one up himself. He established a Facebook group, reached out to local media outlets, contacted the local council and launched a leafleting campaign to reach as many people as possible. Dozens of volunteers got involved and Jack was the person to coordinate them. During his volunteering, Jack made friends with an old man in his neighbourhood who sometimes gives Jack homemade apple tarts when he goes round for a chat when delivering his groceries!
Young people have really wanted to share what they’ve been doing during lockdown. While young people often get labelled as apathetic or troublesome, youth up and down the UK has been challenging this prejudice. As a result, anecdotally, the image of young people has been changed for the positive this year. One young person dressed as a Power Ranger while helping with shopping and prescriptions to bring some fun and positivity into people’s lives. Initiatives aimed at improving physical and mental health have been a lifeline for many during lockdown. One young person has been teaching their neighbours how to dance, with people joining in aged 2 to 91, giving a chance for people to chat, smile and use their bodies during lockdown. Another used their self-taught skills in bike repairing and servicing to help their neighbours get their old bikes back on the road again, a service that was run out of their garden and garage. Young people have been working with vulnerable groups but through a large cross-section of society. 47% of the respondents said they were working with families in poverty and 24% with people who are homeless. Young people also shared that they worked with asylum seekers, survivors of domestic abuse and key workers. The community focus and personal relationships have gone a long way to building sustainable and cohesive communities in the face of Covid-19. As Chia-Hsu Jessica Chang reflects in Pandemic Solidarity: ‘A web of communal support with strategic physical distancing does not equate to social segregation’ (Chang, J. C. (2020)). Sharing Spaces and Crossing Borders: Voices from Taiwan. In Maria Sitrin & Colectiva Sembrar (Eds.), Pandemic Solidarity, p. 54). In fact, what we’ve seen is the opposite.
Solidarity work and volunteering inevitably means doing work the state does not do at the margins of society and cleaning up the mess as a result of the failure of governments. In the UK, there is a reliance on non-profits and local initiatives to fill in the gaps where under-investment and the impact of austerity policies is hitting the most vulnerable and marginalised in society. Lockdown has highlighted the inequities of simply living on a daily basis: luxurious and large living spaces versus cramped flats without gardens, the ability to access food deliveries online versus having to buy groceries requiring face-to-face contact, the ability to work from home versus work in frontline jobs. Unpaid care and frontline service jobs have largely sat in the hands of women, migrants and young people. The BAME community has seen a disproportionate number of Covid-19 related deaths. The problem with the reliance on these often informal systems of mutual aid and localised volunteering is that they are often finite; they rely on people who have been furloughed, lost their jobs or are on a break from education. The systems often have little or no government support or investment, both financially and politically, as cost cutting was devolved to local councils on dwindling budgets for years. What we have seen during the Covid-19 crisis is that where there is political willingness, it is possible to introduce support systems for the most vulnerable. In the UK, homelessness was temporarily almost eradicated with homeless people being given rooms in hotels. Flexible working was introduced almost overnight; something that disabled people and care-givers have been demanding for years. Now is the time for the government to recognise the invaluable work of young people and other volunteers putting themselves out there, and to adapt governance structures to properly support the localised volunteering and support initiatives. Rojava is one of the only places in the world where mutual aid is embedded into governance structures, and this is something that other governments should be taking inspiration from.
The localised focus of the majority of the volunteering that young people have been involved with during the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the strengths that ad-hoc initiatives can have in comparison to traditional, organised youth work. A common theme that came out of the survey and interviews I conducted was that top down and hierarchical structures can be a significant barrier for young people to engage with volunteering. What we can take from this is that in order to better engage young people in communities and decision-making, we need to consider how to facilitate building more horizontal structures in the youth work sector. This does not mean that local community organising should replace organised youth work through organisations. It is concerning that a UK Youth report indicates that 88% of youth organisations surveyed said they are likely or very likely to have to reduce their youth service provision to young people as a result of Covid-19. Volunteering rates have increased by from 30% to 40% in the three months to July 2020. Organised youth work can learn from the successes of the past months, taking what has been successful in engaging so many new volunteers and applying it to their contexts. Young people have been vital to many of the local community initiatives during the pandemic as, in general, they have been one of the least vulnerable groups in relation to the virus. Many of the stories that were shared with me had an element of how young people’s participation challenged the negative prejudices that some people – usually older people – had towards young people. The actions we have seen are, contrary to media discourse, not extraordinary acts of heroes but everyday acts of solidarity underpinned by the values of mutuality and humanity. As we move into the new normal, the needs that communities have will not disappear, they will change form. Community volunteering will need to adapt to these changing needs and also work out how to operate once young people go back into work, training or education. We have also learnt that personal connections and a local connection is vital for motivation. It is also easier to see results on a local level, which encourages young people to continue volunteering. Appreciation is a powerful tool for keeping young people engaged and active – not in a monetary sense, but young people need to feel like they matter in mutual collaboration.
We are now facing a turning point in society. To quote Arundati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal-gateway between one world and the next’ (Roy, A. Financial Times online. March 2020). It is now time to imagine a new world based on humanity and shape the new normal for the better. To do this, we must recognise that mutual aid and volunteering is a political act – it challenges the status quo, and challenges the unequal system in which we live, based on systemic oppression. The past months have been a refreshing reminder of the power of community, the creativity of young people and the power of solidarity. While the millionaires and billionaires have been getting richer during the pandemic, the general public are starting to challenge this monopoly of power and money. A recent survey of Conservative party members has shown a noticeable increase in support for raising taxes. Covid-19 has been a reset button for many. There has been a shift of priorities. Work, money and the ‘daily grind’ are no longer primary motivators for many. Health and social care, being able to see friends and family and a cohesive community are more important than material gains. As professed by the late David Graeber: ‘It is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience — be it only at the stage of an instinct — of human solidarity’ (Graeber, D. & Grubačić A. (2020) Introduction to Mutual Aid: An Illuminated Factor of Evolution, p. 5). Many of the young people’s mutual aid initiatives have now expanded well beyond the initial networks set up to deal with the pandemic. Initiatives have made progress in tackling some of the core issues caused by governmental neglect, such as food insecurity, isolation and loneliness and community divides. But these are not sustainable without a fundamental shift in society away from corruption, neoliberalism – where profit is put first over people – and monopoly. Covid-19 will not disappear and the post-Covid impacts are already being seen across society. It is how we harness this energy, the tools and solidarity efforts over the past few months to push for a new type of society based on community responsibility, collective solidarity and mutuality. One that is led with young people at the forefront. The future of our world and of humanity will hinge on how we come out of this pandemic.