‘What is remarkable about what we've achieved is that it's unremarkable’

Carl Walker seeks to make sense of the mutual aid response to coronavirus, and how to sustain it in an era of entrenched inequality.

16 April 2020

Worthing is a Sussex town on the south coast. In the last few weeks, as Coronavirus has swept through our country, bringing with it a level of social disruption not witnessed for generations, local groups of residents have organised and mobilised to support the most vulnerable and isolated people in the neighbourhood. In our mutual aid group in East Worthing, nearly 80 volunteers have delivered essential food and medication to almost 100 local families in under two weeks. 

This group of local people have set up a designated phone lines, organised a daily rota and taken referrals to help people from pharmacies, GP surgeries and the local hospital. We have delivered school food packages to local pupil premium families. Our fundraiser to begin a temporary local foodbank made its target in less than a day, and a call put out by the local hospital to ask for donations of folding beds for staff to sleep at the local hospital received 250 emailed offers. Our group have provided well organised and essential community support and care at breakneck speed from a standing start.  

What is remarkable about what we've achieved is that it's unremarkable. Mutual aid groups have sprung up the country over as an informal, emergency response to help isolated people to access food and medicine.

Coronavirus, psychology and a common identity
It could be argued that the actions of this sudden mutual aid resurgence flies in the face of the individualising tendencies of modern liberal governance where the retrenchment of the welfare state and years of fiscal austerity have led to financial exclusion, marginalisation and isolation for an increasing number of people. A core feature of the era of austerity economics has been the distinction between a deserving and an undeserving poor – those who relied on state support through welfare were routinely demonised as profligate skivers by governments, mainstream media and an entertainment industry content to muddy the social fabric with public suspicion and contempt.

This period of economic austerity was linked to nearly 120,000 excess deaths in England, with the over 60s and care home residents bearing the brunt. The spending restraints were associated with 45,368 excess deaths between 2010 and 2014. Every £10 drop in spend per head on social care was associated with five extra care home deaths per 100,000 of the population. 

An uncomfortable question rears its head: how have our communities mobilised to fight the 8,000 deaths (at time of counting) but passively witnessed 120,000 deaths linked to an economic austerity? 

Recent developments in social and community psychology might point the way. If we look a little closer at the impacts of recent disasters throughout history, whether it’s crowd behaviour in emergency evacuations or the response of New Yorkers during and after the September 11th attacks (Tierney, 2003), we see repeated stories of altruism and cooperation, even when people themselves are at great risk. 

Psychological research suggests that being in an emergency can create a common identity amongst those affected. Emergencies appear to at least temporarily dissolve social division as the development of this identity facilitates a degree of cooperative altruism even when amongst strangers in life-threatening situations – see the work of social psychologists Chris Cocking, John Drury, Stephen Reicher and others.

The Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM) of crowd behaviour developed by Reicher suggests that a common identity emerges among people as a result of a shared fate in the face of illegitimate attacks from an outgroup. According to Reicher, it is this common identity that can result in people helping and supporting each other, even if they are complete strangers. Coronavirus functions in a similar way, positioning groups of people as being under attack from a common and indiscriminate enemy. 

However, in the UK in recent years, experiences of shared identity have been shorn by the crass identity politics of the Brexit debate and the repeated scapegoating of those on the economic margins of society, be they migrant workers or those on benefits. Indeed, as marked as the era of austerity was by fiscal spending restraint, it was as marked by social division, mistrust and malaise. This country has been riven with uncommonly overt political and cultural divisions that have filtered through to the very core of our day-to-day relations with people. The conditions for a common identity through which to collectively respond to the public health impacts of austerity were absent.

But during Coronavirus we have seen the mass mobilisation of community solidarity behaviours. The Brexit self-categorisations of division have been displaced by shared, collective self-categorisations of what makes us similar to others. We have the conditions for a common identity that has resulted in communities like ours helping and supporting each other in unprecedented ways and developed the ‘we-ness’ that typically emerges from disasters (Clarke, 2002). 

Community psychology and mutual aid 
The community response to Coronavirus lends itself to a relational account of wellbeing that foregrounds what Duff (2012) calls ‘enabling places’ where wellbeing is not as a set of entities to be acquired as internalised qualities of individuals but instead as a set of effects produced in specific times and places, as situational and relational (Atkinson, 2013). 

This resonates with the politicised philosophy of wellbeing that lies behind the term mutual aid. Mutual aid finds its conceptual roots in the anarchism propounded by the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He argued against the creeping social Darwinism of his time by providing examples of how societies thrive by adhering to the principles of mutually beneficial reciprocity.  

This broader notion of what constitutes wellbeing, and the emphasis of social movements cooperating for the common good, leads us to the door of Community Psychology. Community psychology as a discipline is oriented to a values-based approach to wellbeing that focuses on working with those experiencing exclusion, in order to bring about social change. Central to the discipline is the idea that all people, especially those with lived experiences of exclusion, have vital forms of expertise necessary to bring about meaningful change.  

To some extent this stands at odds with the hierarchical and paternalistic approach to care implicit in many professional and statutory services. The principles and practice of mutual aid resonates with community psychology because it is driven by the organisational and care expertise of everyday people living in communities the country over. It’s the very agility and embedded nature of the relations in local communities that makes it so responsive – probably more so than professional services whose more rigid protocols and procedures make it more difficult to respond to very different, complex needs at very short notice. 

Moreover, it provides a community-building space where people feel that they belong to a group through mutually supportive relationships (Walker et al., 2017). Mutual aid groups move from care practices oriented to passive individuals to care practices oriented around solidarity that allow for the amplification of forms of active citizenship that some people are experiencing for the first time in their lives. The sense of empathy, recognition and practical assistance offered through mutual aid is an entirely voluntary exchange among equals. From our group and others I’ve observed, people take great care to avoid setting up a paternalistic or hierarchical relationship between them. 

Sustaining mutual aid and a psychology of public health 
Are these new forms of relating sustainable beyond the current crisis? That probably depends on how the political, economic and communicative lessons of this crisis are absorbed. 

A profoundly unequal society needs accompanying myths to justify and enable the consensus for this inequality. These myths ferment division, blame and scapegoating, which wrecks the common identities that have allowed so much progress so quickly.  We know from social psychology that these blaming impulses, so useful to mainstream politicians and media, distort the notion of a common unity and shared fate. In essence, institutionalised inequality demands justification for division. That means constant political labour to break notions of common identity and institute and maintain discursive and symbolic differences in value between groups of people in society. It’s one of the reasons the response to the public health crises of austerity was largely absent.  

The suddenness and sheer savagery of coronavirus was not free from the grasp of inequality – just look at the respective salaries of the shop workers, hospital workers and care workers forced to put themselves at increased risk on a daily basis. However, the divisive forms of communication that typically accompany the politics of inequality and that attenuate the sense of collective identity were absent. Instead there was a meaningful sense of collectiveness and solidarity that allowed a concerted mutual aid response. Appealing to people’s cooperative and collective identity should be encouraged in public spaces and public discourse on an everyday basis; to make more stark the injustices of inequality, but also to increase citizen participation and support our public services in preventing distress and improving citizen participation. 

Picking up the pieces of social fabric
For too many years psychologists have been trapped in the invidious position of trying to pick up the pieces of the social fabric ruptured by prolonged austerity and inequality… and to do so with decreased resource and increased clinical caseloads (PAA). 

As a discipline we now to need to seriously orientate ourselves to support our public services in preventing distress and improving citizen participation. The long term fall-out of this virus will require psychologists to develop public health research and practice that focuses on preventative, community-led approaches to mental health and emotional wellbeing that continue to build collective responses to individual needs and by doing so strengthen communities. 

The adoption of a community psychology of wellbeing in the Public Health agenda means recognising not only the personal but the social, political, economic drivers of wellbeing and ensuring that meaningful prevention programmes address income, health and social inequalities as well as social inclusion and community integration (Mezzina et al., 2006). As mutual aid shows, we need to acknowledge the importance of co-production with people and communities and privilege their rich expertise and experience. As a psychologist and local authority councillor, I see immediate value in a programme of work to embed psychologists in local authorities to develop, with local communities, the evidence base for preventative interventions to improve public health. 

Finally, the post-virus pressure on governments from financial markets seeking to recalibrate profit margins will be immense. In response, our social justice agenda now needs to be front and central and psychologists will need to be involved in difficult conversations around inequality and its impacts if we are to help address the post-virus drivers of poor wellbeing in the UK. This will require a much more serious focus on policy, partnerships and tools which assess the psychological impacts of the fallout of the virus. 

Dissolving into a mass of antagonisms over Brexit evidenced the worst of the British people in 2019. However, the selfless solidarity and sacrifice in the face of a life-threatening national emergency in 2020 showed the very best we are capable of being. Mutual aid has shown us that a ‘public’ public health is possible if we nurture the conditions that support the people who are looking around, seeing a tragedy unfolding before them, and yearning to help their fellow human beings in any way they can. 

Carl Walker is a Reader in Psychology and Psychology Subject Lead at the University of Brighton. [email protected]


Atkinson, S. (2013). Beyond components of wellbeing: the effects of relational and situated assemblage. Topoi 32, 137-144.

British Medical Journal. (2020). Health and social care spending cuts linked to 120,000 excess deaths in England.

Clarke, L. (2002). Panic: myth or reality? 

Cocking, C., Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2009). The psychology of crowd behaviour in fires: implications for the emergency services. Irish Journal of Psychology30(1), 59-72. 

Duff, C. (2012). Exploring the role of ‘enabling places’ in promoting recovery from mental illness: a qualitative test of a relational model. Health and Place, 18, 1388-1395.

Hancock, L, Mooney, G. (2013). “Welfare Ghettos” and the “Broken Society”: Territorial Stigmatization in the Contemporary UK. Housing, Theory & Society, 30(1)

Mezzina, R, Davidson, L,  Borg, M, Marin, I, Topor, A, Sells, D. (2006). The social natures of recovery: discussion and implications for practice. American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 9, 63-80.

PAA. (2015). The psychological impacts of austerity

Tierney, K. (2003), "Disaster beliefs and institutional interests: recycling disaster myths in the aftermath of 9–11", in Clarke, L. (Ed.) Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas (Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Vol. 11), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 33-51. 

Walker, C, Hart, A, Hanna, P. (2017). Building a new community psychology of mental health. Palgrave, UK.