Strengthening solidarity and mutual aid is urgent in times of crisis. As COVID-19 forces billions of people into lockdown, community-led initiatives are finding new ways to build community, showing an example to others and extending themselves to those in need.
This article is dedicated to community-led emergency reaction and food distribution. The next article will focus on prompt innovations in the economy and handling psychological challenges. The third will cover the importance of digital tools and self-care.
The direct fear related to COVID-19 is that of contracting the disease, developing severe symptoms, infecting loved ones, contributing to its spread and even death. The indirect fear is about financial and social security, uncertainty about the unfolding of the pandemic and sheer confusion about the future in general.
Individuals surrounded by a strong community network are feeling the benefits of their connections now. Even when ten people divide tasks among themselves and offer support to the most vulnerable, that’s a lot, what’s to say if a few hundred community members do the same.
In a recent online conversation Weaving community in times of crisis, organised by Global Ecovillage Network, a few communities have shared their takes on the crisis.
In Northern Italy, one of the hot zones of the COVID-19 infection, Damanhur community reacted with strict measures, as Macaco Tamerice reported. Conscious of the vulnerability of closely-knit communities, they’re taking government recommendations very seriously. Damanhur’s response is rooted in high trust and good organisation. There are protocols already in place for various crises, which makes coordinated response a lot easier.
Damanhur’s basic household units or “nucleos” consist of a few families each, so their social life is not as severely hampered as elsewhere. Even while physically distancing they can maintain a certain level of social connection while still strictly respecting the lockdown. They take excellent preventive care of the most vulnerable, marginalised, older and ill members of the community, so they wouldn’t get infected, keeping them safe, bringing them food while in self-isolation.
Liz Walker from Ithaca community in the U.S. said they’re caring deeply together, looking after people with most vulnerability. A crisis has a way of proving what truly matters. They’re sharing activities, connecting around shared work, gardening, cooking, cleaning … conscious about the epidemic. They’ve opened a market where both members and people from outside the community can get food on their own with no physical contact, leaving the money in a box.
Foundation for Intentional Community has also organised an online call for members to share how they’re coping with the situation and see how they can support each other. On their website, FIC has assembled a list of resources with essential information related to COVID-19.
“For those living in intentional communities, especially those with close communal living arrangements, we recommend creating a community action plan. Use the resources available above to plan how you will disinfect communal surfaces, care for those who may become ill, and protect those most vulnerable. Also consider… how can your community do even more to support the wider region of communities where you live?”
Such calls for supporting wider communities are becoming common as many individuals extend themselves beyond usual to keep society running and to have all the vital goods and services available. People have suddenly realised that nurses, garbage collectors, grocery store attendants, drivers, bakers, electricians and mechanics can be more significant than athletes, singers and politicians.
A member of an organic farmers’ cooperative in Slovenia said: “All of a sudden we have more demand than we can provide. However much we’d have planted, we’d sell everything.” Now the cooperative has increased spring planting and started door-to-door delivery of fresh vegetables in the region. Members of other communities are coming to help with the work in the field. Following their lead, LAG Istria called all the farmers in the region to join the scheme of local food distribution directly to consumers in need.
This is far from being an isolated case. The Open Food Network, deployed in 13 countries, outlines an innovative approach to getting small producers to market through “software designed for food”, and similar platforms are being emulated on all continents, giving small farmers a window to directly reach customers with their products in a sort of digital Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme.
“Digital food platforms have never been more urgent. In this new restricted mobility context, Open Food Network is perhaps the best example of a good food network that’s digitised, cooperative, open source, not for profit and ready for your community.”
As this article in New York Times Food Supply Anxiety Brings Back Victory Gardens points out, “shoppers worry that industrial agriculture could fail them during a pandemic. … People seem to be preparing for some serious disruptions in the food supply.”
What used to be Victory Gardens during the two world wars of the last century now comes up again as Cooperative Garden Commissions, all in an effort to motivate local food production and distribution. In times of war, people converted every possible plot to farmland, now people are invited to do the same at their homes.
“What we stand for now is what our elders and ancestors have always stood for. To free ourselves, we must feed ourselves.” – Leah Penniman
As much as bottom-up community-led action is necessary, we must acknowledge the crucial role governments are playing now through their power to intervene and take urgent measures in critical moments. That’s an irreplaceable leverage point in any difficult situation.
Community-led projects may see the government as their enemy when it’s lenient to corporations, not taking seriously the environmental destruction resulting in climate change, pollution and misuse of resources. When trouble strikes, however, communities and governments can be natural allies. Communities, like families, care about real people’s lives and wellbeing more than anything; the government has a chance to recognise this if communities come forth and if the government keeps the space of dialogue open. Now is the moment when such a dialogue is urgent.
Global networks are using the time of crisis to address global issues and emphasise the solutions that have already been proposed many times in the recent years, such as this Open Letter to Global Readers — A Healthy Planet for Healthy People by the Club of Rome.
“We know what the solutions are: investing in renewable energy instead of fossil fuels; investing in nature and reforestation; investing in sustainable food systems and regenerative agriculture; and, shifting to a more local, circular and low carbon economy. These positive actions can also be a much-needed source of collective hope and optimism for life regeneration in these uncertain times.”
Communities can appreciate the role of the government and the governments can acknowledge the essential function of communities in preserving society as we know it. As Sabine Lichtenfels from Tamera Ecovillage in Portugal said: “To understand humanity you have to understand community.”