We have seen, heard, and read a lot about the critical role of mutual aid in the response to Covid-19.

In the early stages of lockdown, many new groups appeared, acting as a lifeline between some of the most vulnerable members of society, and those able to offer their support. From sharing food to collecting prescriptions, delivering books or newspapers, these compassionate acts during a time of anxiety and change will be remembered by many who experienced the pandemic. 

Salisbury Cathedral
Photo by Alexander London on Unsplash

So, though at first glance the mutual aid response to Covid-19 may appear to be random or sporadic, a closer look shows how in some cases, these responses formed part of longer-term systems, thinking and planning

The hyperlocal infrastructures of care that emerged when society was instructed to stay physically apart and isolated in their homes, will no doubt be written in the history books as one of the more positive outcomes of Covid-19. Yet community participation and capacity to self-organise —  particularly during times of crisis — is far from a new occurrence.

There are many examples throughout history of groups pooling their resources and co-designing approaches to ensure community wellbeing. One such example is during the plague outbreak of 1665, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire mutually agreed to quarantine themselves to prevent the disease spreading to their surrounding areas. Another example is the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844. Faced with poor working conditions, low wages and rising food prices, they combined their resources to buy and sell basic goods to others at a lower price. This approach is now widely recognised as the co-operative model.  

In thinking about the future, it’s time to learn from history, and build on the capacity of our communities to enable long-term, sustainable change.

Though these are just two examples of many throughout history, they both – along with the numerous community initiatives we have seen in response to Covid-19 - show the capabilities of individuals and agility of communities to respond, react and create solutions to emerging societal issues. So, though at first glance the mutual aid response to Covid-19 may appear to be random or sporadic, a closer look shows how in some cases, these responses formed part of longer-term systems, thinking and planning than we perhaps give credit. 

As a mechanism for empowering citizens, sustaining wellbeing, and creating change, mutual aid - and participation more widely – could be seen as part of pre-existing, deep-rooted community infrastructures that enabled a kinder, more collaborative, and inclusive response to the pandemic. ‘Cathedral thinking’ is a concept that refers to the long-term planning and strategic foresight that can be seen in architecture yet is often neglected in policymaking and practice. But are we also overlooking the capacity of our communities, too? 

To be sustainable, communities must be able to change, adapt and reimagine.

Research undertaken during the early stages of Covid-19 suggests that many of the Local Authorities that had a long history of investing in their communities and developing opportunities for participation and engagement were better placed to respond to the crisis. Many of the communities that reacted most effectively and rapidly already had certain ‘preconditions’ in place long before Covid-19 emerged as a threat to our wellbeing. Community anchor organisations, such as housing associations and development trusts, that have, over a period of many years, developed effective partnership approaches, were able to react to the local needs of their communities, tailoring their methods of participation and drawing on deep-rooted connections with their local networks.

But ‘cathedral thinking’ is not just about longevity. To be sustainable, communities must be able to change, adapt and reimagine. The Trust’s conversations with local authorities and communities throughout the pandemic supports this evidence. These conversations have highlighted that many who already had volunteers engaged in environmental work, or local-responses in place to respond to flooding, were able to build on and repurpose these mechanisms during Covid-19. 

In thinking about the future, it’s time to learn from history, and build on the capacity of our communities to enable long-term, sustainable change. To see mutual aid and citizen participation – and the communities in which they flourish – as a cathedral thinking response to recovery, worthy of long-term investment. 

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to Covid-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Hannah Ormston is a Policy and Development Officer working within the Wellbeing & Towns team, at the Carnegie UK Trust. The Trust works to improve the wellbeing of people living in the UK and Ireland.

Find out more about the Carnegie UK Trust’s Enabling State programme of work in their recent report exploring how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the relationship between government, public services and citizens, here