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Understanding and supporting the role of mutual aid groups in the Covid-19 pandemic

  • COVID-19

Professor John Drury FAcSS (Professor of Social Psychology, University of Sussex) Dr Evangelos Ntontis (Lecturer in Social Psychology, School of Psychology and Life Sciences, Canterbury Christ Church University), and Guan Mao, (Research Assistant for the Groups and Covid project at Sussex University)  

In this article John and his co-authors, highlight the findings of their research exploring the role and importance of mutual aid groups during the pandemic. As continued public health disease outbreaks persist, they argue that these groups will continue to be a useful part of the civil society landscape in the foreseeable future.

Mutual aid and other community support groups were an essential part of the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. In the UK, the first such groups were set up in March 2020 (shortly before the first ‘lockdown’) to support the most vulnerable who were ‘shielding’ at home. As the numbers infected rose sharply, the main focus of mutual aid groups shifted to assisting those who were self-isolating. By July 2020, estimates suggested over 4000 such local groups had formed over the course of the pandemic, in addition to many existing community groups that had changed their functions toward COVID support, with as many as three million participants.

The main contribution of mutual aid groups has been provision of grocery shopping for those self-isolating. But they have also been involved in collection of prescriptions, dog walking, postal and library services, emotional and informational support, providing entertainment/leisure and more.

A key challenge for mutual aid groups is not only how to support others, but also how to sustain themselves. Emergent community support is common in the wake of disasters; but it typically declines within a few months as energy and resources run out. In the case of COVID mutual aid groups, their activity is largely unpaid; it can be physically and emotionally demanding; volunteers themselves risk becoming infected; resources are often limited; and it may be difficult to maintain volunteers’ morale. We therefore need to understand what can be done to help sustain COVID mutual aid groups. Our current UKRI-funded research project addresses this question.

In his classic account of ‘therapeutic communities’, Fritz (1961) suggested that participating in post-disaster support could have mental health benefits. The ‘social cure’ approach in psychology complements this by proposing mechanisms through which psychological group membership can provide wellbeing, including connectedness, support, efficacy and meaning. Based on these ideas, we carried out a small in-depth interview study to explore the possible consequences of participation in mutual aid groups for participants’ mental health and wellbeing. Interviewees were 11 volunteers in mutual aid groups aligned to a housing campaign organisation, ACORN. They were a mixture of people, some of whom were ‘political’ and who had previously been involved in ACORN campaigning, and others who joined to get involved in COVID mutual aid. Activities included door-to-door food delivery, administration support, post collection, social calls, and working in a foodbank.

Our analysis suggested that participation in the mutual aid group provided participants with wellbeing in different ways, including positive emotional experiences, an increased sense of engagement in life, improved social relationships, and a greater sense of control. This finding builds on previous research showing that volunteering can benefit participants’ wellbeing though ‘social cure’ processes such as sense of belonging and social support. But it adds to this previous research by showing how these processes can work in a group operating in the COVID setting where there is risk to participants. In addition, participants’ identities and framings of the activities were important. Those who viewed their participation through the lens of their political identity were able to experience additional benefits such as feelings of empowerment.

In a second in-depth study, we interviewed 32 organisers of COVID mutual aid and community solidarity groups in the UK between September 2020 and January 2021. We sought to examine the strategies they employed to keep the groups going and what experiences were important in keeping people involved. By speaking to organisers, we intended to get evidence on ‘what worked’; and by interviewing people across the UK and in different types of mutual aid groups (some political, some not; some working with local authorities, some not), we hoped to capture a range of experiences. As in the previous study we found that wellbeing was a motivating experience. But we were also able to identify a range of other relevant strategies and experiences.

Social identification is a well-established predictor of participation in community volunteering, support following disasters, and collective action. We found that identification (with the mutual aid group or with the local community) was important for many of our interviewees, both as an outcome of participation and as motivation for further involvement. Other experiences that drove further involvement included a sense of group efficacy and perceived support from others in the group.

Some of these findings have been echoed by other recent studies showing that identification is a predictor of mutual aid group participation and that mutual aid group participation can provide mental health benefits though creating a sense of unity and community identity.

In terms of the strategies that organisers felt had been successful in maintaining the groups, interviewees first said they actively tried to keep regular communication within the group, including by asking volunteers about their needs and trying to respond to them promptly. To facilitate internal communication, participants used WhatsApp and Facebook groups and regular telephone calls. Second, groups organised regular meetings. While most meetings were online, groups sometimes had the opportunity to meet outdoors. Third, the structure of the group seemed to matter. While there was often a division of labour between ‘organisers’ and ‘volunteers’, an open or horizontal organization was thought to sustain people’s engagement. Fourth, the importance of caring for and supporting group members was explicitly mentioned by many. Interviewees said they worked hard to prepare and develop clear guidelines to protect volunteers and avoid the risk of spreading the virus when providing support to others. They also mentioned the importance of ensuring that no volunteer would get overloaded and of providing emotional support to volunteers when necessary.

We have created a website of resources useful for COVID mutual aid groups, based on our work with the groups we have met and the wider literature. Our research is continuing with a large-scale survey of volunteers to test the extent to which the variables identified in the interview studies predict sustained involvement.

Even at this early stage, however, some preliminary conclusions and recommendations are possible. Our findings clearly show the importance of group processes in sustaining mutual aid groups, including a sense of belonging to the group and to the neighbourhood, and perceived support from others in the mutual aid group. But this and the other psychological factors that help sustain COVID mutual aid groups are critically reliant on material resources. Just as people self-isolating need the practical and financial support to do so (on top of their intentions), the mutual aid groups in our research sustained themselves when they had access to resources they needed to perform their tasks. These resources included access to storage space and transport, plus of course sufficient volunteers with the right skills. Some groups developed the skills to apply successfully for grant funding, but many groups were unhappy with the restrictions placed on them by funding arrangements and by charitable status.

At the time of writing, COVID infection levels in the UK are relatively low. But even within the government’s ‘roadmap’ out of ‘lockdown’, it is clear that public health disease outbreak measures will continue to be needed. This in turn means that people will need to self-isolate and will need support to do so. Beyond COVID, many groups would like to continue assisting their neighbours and otherwise get actively involved in their community. Mutual aid groups face many challenges, but they are likely to be an important and useful part of the landscape of civil society for the foreseeable future.

The research described in this article was supported by an ESRC grant to John Drury and Evangelos Ntontis, reference number ES/V005383/1.

About the authors

Professor John Drury is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on collective behaviour – in protests, riots and social movements; emergencies; and less dramatic crowd phenomena such as at festivals, music and sports events. His findings on collective resilience in mass emergencies has informed the training of crowd safety managers and the UK Civil Contingencies Secretariat’s National Risk Assessments. He is a former editor of the British Journal of Social Psychology.

Dr Evangelos Ntontis is a Lecturer in Social Psychology in the School of Psychology and Life Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University. His general interests include collective behaviour in disasters, social movements, leadership, and mass mobilization. Recently he has developed an interest in how systemic issues can operate as stressors that can exert a negative influence on mental health and wellbeing. He is an advocate of mixed methods research and use both qualitative (discursive, phenomenological) and quantitative (survey, experimental) approaches to data collection and analysis.

Dr. Maria Fernandes-Jesus is a social and community psychologist, specialising in the study of participation and collective action. She is currently a research fellow at the University of Sussex, UK, working on the project “Facilitating the public response to COVID-19 by harnessing group processes”. She has been particularly interested in understanding how and in which conditions groups and communities engage in sustained participation and collective action. She has experience in interdisciplinary and mixed-method research in the field of youth participation, community-based initiatives, political engagement with climate change, mutual aid and solidarity, climate activism and social movements.

Guan Mao currently serves as a research assistant for the Groups and Covid project at Sussex University. At Groups and Covid his work has involved leading a study on the mental health consequences of mutual aid participation as well as a rapid literature review on volunteering during Covid-19. He has also worked on a literature review regarding possible behavioural responses to Covid-19 health certification. Guan is also currently working on a joint project with the University of Edinburgh and DCMS regarding the piloting of large crowd events, with a view to informing the government on how Covid-19 event restrictions can be safely lifted.