Coronavirus cripples volunteering in America

Volunteers Help Older Residents Affected by Coronavirus

Coronavirus cripples volunteering in America

AP Photo / Jessie Wardarski

Carol Sterling, 83, gives a thumbs-up to Liam Elkind after he delivers groceries to her apartment as part of a newly formed volunteer group he cofounded, Invisible Hands.

En español | On the day New York City went into a state of emergency, Maggie Connolly made a run to her local grocery in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood.

Returning home from a store emptied of bread, eggs, meat, soap and toilet paper, she thought about her grandmother in Wisconsin and her late father, who was disabled.

“I was thinking how terrifying this whole situation would have been to him,” says Connolly, a 33-year-old hairstylist. “And I was thinking about my elderly neighbors, too.”

That night Connolly posted a handwritten flyer on her corner offering to pick up groceries and medications for people at higher risk for coronavirus who are worried about leaving home. She listed an email address that named Trudy, her Brussels bichon puppy, “because I'm pretty sure most of my neighbors know her name more than they know mine.”

Courtesy of Maggie Connolly

Maggie Connolly and her dog, Trudy

A neighbor spotted the sign and posted it on her social media feeds.

“I woke up in the morning and I had all these emails from people, both in my neighborhood and in New York, just reaching out, wanting to volunteer,” Connolly says.

As her sign went viral — Connolly has appeared on NBC's Today and Fox & Friends and heard from people posting similar flyers in neighborhoods in Australia, Brazil and South Africa — her local volunteer list grew.

She's now directing New Yorkers who contact her to Invisible Hands and Brooklyn Mutual Aid, organizations that sprang up in recent days to coordinate volunteer shopping and deliveries for older and immunocompromised people.

Young people ‘stepping up'

Within days of its mid-March launch, Invisible Hands had amassed 3,000 volunteers serving all five boroughs and Jersey City, New Jersey, according to Liam Elkind, one of four young New Yorkers who runs the service. They already are laying the groundwork to take Invisible Hands national and have had talks with officials in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other regions.

“I certainly didn't expect that when I started it, but what I'm recognizing now is that there is a real need for it, both in terms of people wanting to help and in terms of people being really scared to leave their home and get their own food,” says Elkind, a 20-year-old Yale junior now home in Manhattan on what he called “extended spring break.”

For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to

So far, Invisible Hands has been able to make same-day deliveries, Elkind says. The group offers multiple ways for people to pay for the goods.

Volunteers must be healthy and come from populations at lower risk for COVID-19, the respiratory illness that this new coronavirus causes.

“If I go out and I happen to get sick, most ly I will get a fever and get some coughs. And that's not good, but I'll self-quarantine and most ly I'll be OK.

But if one of these people goes out, it's really serious and potentially life-threatening,” he says.

“There's really no question in my mind [that] the young people are the people who need to be stepping up right now.”

Watch: Volunteers offer help during coronavirus outbreak

Social media startups

Invisible Hands, which Elkind says started with a friend's post looking for ways to help, Brooklyn Mutual Aid grew conversations on the community social network Nextdoor about running errands for at-risk neighbors, says Grace Linderholm, 25, one of the group's organizers. It has signed up about 30 volunteers with about 60 more pending.

Similar mutual-aid and community-care groups have mobilized nationwide, from Berkeley, California, to Washington, D.C., as an ad hoc, localized response to the pandemic. They mix online organizing via social media and shared spreadsheets with low-tech outreach, such as flyers and phone banks, and place a strong premium on safety and risk reduction.

“Our biggest problem is getting the word out to people who are housebound, especially people who might not know that these [volunteer] networks exist.”

— Grace Linderholm, Brooklyn Mutual Aid

AARP's Community Connections platform includes a searchable directory to help you find mutual-aid groups in your area. 

So far, supply has outstripped demand. As of March 20, Invisible Hands had made about 100 deliveries, with about 200 requests pending, Elkind says. Brooklyn Mutual Aid has made a handful of runs.

“Our biggest problem is getting the word out to people who are housebound, especially people who might not know that these [volunteer] networks exist,” Linderholm says. Her group has a hotline for people to request deliveries — 929-314-0899 — and plans to build a presence on , the most popular social network among older users.

“We've all found ourselves in this insane predicament,” Linderholm says. “I think the emphasis people are really trying to send out is that we are all in this together, and your neighbors are who you can depend on and turn to right now.”

Running even simple errands for people at elevated risk for coronavirus requires “practicing the utmost caution,” says Grace Linderholm, founder of Brooklyn Mutual Aid. These broad guidelines are adapted from the group's safety training for volunteers.

• Act you're already a carrier. A volunteer may feel healthy but could be contagious even without showing symptoms.

The best way to help neighbors is to have an abundance of caution. Volunteers who show any signs of illness or have been in recent contact with someone who does should stay home.

• Practice social distancing, especially on errands. Volunteers are told to stay 6 feet away from people at all times on the street and at the store. If the checkout line is crowded, they are to politely ask others to take a few steps back.

Peter Steffen/picture alliance via Getty Images

• Wear gloves. “Every errand we do, we do in gloves,” Linderholm says. Volunteers have to put them on before leaving the house, and once they're on, they should not touch their face.

When they return home, they should remove the gloves safely without touching the exterior of the gloves with bare hands. If the gloves are reusable, they should be washed in soap and water for at least 30 seconds after each use.

• Disinfect, disinfect, disinfect. Volunteers are told to carry bleach wipes or disinfectant spray to use on store doors, shopping carts and self-checkout machines. If they don't have any available from commercial sources, they're told to make disinfectant spray from a solution of 60 percent water and 40 percent bleach or rubbing alcohol.

Anything they leave for a neighbor, be it pill bottles or groceries in plastic bags, should be sprayed and allowed to dry before it's dropped off. They're told to spray doorknobs and other surfaces touched while wearing gloves at the neighbor's house and their own.

• Have a delivery plan. Contacting the neighbor ahead of time to make a plan is important, they're told.

Minimizing face-to-face contact is the goal — leaving deliveries on stoops or doorsteps and knocking, ringing or calling to let recipients know their items have arrived. If a neighbor opens the door while during a dropoff, volunteers must maintain the 6-foot rule.


COVID-19 drives global surge in volunteering | United Nations

Coronavirus cripples volunteering in America

At the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers have demonstrated an exceptional display of solidarity across the world. Responding to calls for help from their local communities, they are everyday heroes.

“Volunteers have been assisting vulnerable groups, correcting misinformation, educating children, providing essential services to the elderly, and supporting front-line health workers,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on the occasion of International Volunteer Day on 5 December.

Wave of solidarity

A wave of solidarity has spread across Europe, including in France, where platform Tous Bénévoles (All Volunteers) witnessed a doubling in those registering in 2020, with 40,000 new volunteers. Coming from a wide range of backgrounds, volunteers responded to various needs: from helping the elderly, to supporting the disabled, migrants, school children as well as organzing food banks.

“It is one of the few positive effects of Covid-19,” says Isabelle Persoz, President of Tous Bénévoles. “More and more young people are signing up and sticking to volunteering,” she adds. A website has been set up for them.

The International Committee of the Red Cross confirms the rise in numbers, with hundreds of thousands of new volunteers across the world, including 48,000 new sign-ups in the Netherlands and 60,000 in Italy.

“We are unable to respond [to all] the external volunteer offers we receive,” says Natacha Dewitte, Assistant Director in Human Resources at the Red Cross in French speaking Belgium.

Thanks to the influx of volunteers, the Red Cross has been able to maintain its relief and social efforts and support the triage of patients in front of hospitals and test centres. The organisation even received an unprecedented offer from a cinema production and casting company which helped install a food distribution hub.

Valérie Verbelen, a field volunteer for Red Cross Belgium, partcipates in a first aid training exercise at the centre in Céroux-Mousty, Belgium. Photo courtesy Valérie Verbelen

Unwavering optimism

Volunteers who have been stepping up to help during the pandemic have been a beacon of selflessness and optimism.

Valérie Verbelen, 50, has been a field volunteer for the Red Cross in Belgium since March 2019. Trained in first aid, she did not hesitate for one moment to give a helping hand to hospitals.

“I felt it was important to give my time,” she tells UNRIC. Some paradoxes, however, remain difficult to overcome.

“Usually, we get close to people, but now we are forced to keep our distance to protect both them and us.”

Belgian medical student Andrea Dehaene, 22, volunteers in a test centre for asymptomatic patients at Ghent University Hospital. She has no regrets. “You feel good knowing you are contributing to the fight against the pandemic. I am also learning new things at the same time,” she says.

Such inspiring efforts are to be admired. “Volunteers bring enormous extra value to society at a very low cost,” says Joost van Alkemade, Director and Community Manager of the Association of Dutch Voluntary Organisations (NOV).

A difficult choice between fear and solidarity

The pandemic has nonetheless also had the opposite effect: some senior citizens, who are particularly at risk, have been denied the chance of helping in the field over concerns for their health.

Red Cross France subsequently lost 11,000 volunteers aged over 60 in one day.

“For these volunteers, it is difficult not to be there in person because volunteering is a way to regain some social contact,” regrets Isabelle Persoz.

This obstacle did not stop Amédéo Miceli, 64, President of the Red Cross centre in La Louvière, Belgium. The centre, which distributes emergency packages and provides urgent food supplies, was overwhelmed at the start of the pandemic.

More and more people needing help

“During the first wave, the number of urgent requests for food aid exploded, increasing by 200-300% in just a few months,” says Miceli, who has not been daunted by fatigue or the virus. “I have been in the field since March. I am not afraid… It is exhausting, but we cannot walk away, we cannot turn our backs.”

With the continuing economic fallout from the crisis, the need for volunteers will not disappear. Food banks, for example, anticipate a huge increase in demand for food aid.

“Everyone can become a volunteer. The first thing you need is goodwill: every act is valuable,” concludes Isabelle Persoz.


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

Coronavirus cripples volunteering in America
Director Patricia Montes of Centro Presente loads food packages into a car in Boston to deliver them to vulnerable immigrant families. Getty Images

It’s been replicating 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 mayhave 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 a.

In these shared documents, thousands of people are jotting down their contact information and offering to do just that.


Donating and volunteering to help during Covid-19, explained

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 solelyon 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 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 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 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 a specific intellectual tradition,which predates the age of Google Docs and shareable spreadsheets.

In 1902, the Russian anarcho-communistphilosopher 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 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, wise, know what it’s 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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“,”author”:”Sigal Samuel”,”date_published”:”2020-03-24T13:00:00.000Z”,”lead_image_url”:”×2529/fit-in/1200×630/”,”dek”:”Thousands of volunteers in “mutual aid” groups are bringing groceries, medications, and more to vulnerable strangers.


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