What Forms of Welsh Mutual Aid are Proving Effective During the Covid-19 Disaster?

by Ted Parry

Ted Parry draws on his experience of participating in Covid-19 mutual aid activity, and interviews with community groups to make the case that organisations such as Tarian Cymru and Valleys Underground continue to be vital in the wake of UK and Welsh government failure to protect their citizens. However, he argues that some forms of mutual aid are potentially harmful in giving strength to government strategies that endanger us further.

Valleys Underground © Valleys Underground

Valleys Underground © Valleys Underground

March 2020. Community transmission of Covid-19 is embedded in Europe. UK governments finally act on the warnings given since December 31st 2019

Their first response, supported by the Conservative party-state bloc and its advisors, consists of looking calm. Rock concerts, race meetings and rugby matches happened, or nearly did, before Westminster sanctioned lockdown.

Alongside gaps in medical and social preparedness, this failure killed around one in every thousand people in the UK in fourteen weeks: amongst the worst figure in the world.

This wasn’t inevitable.

The first instinct of the common people - as sociologists of disasters have become used to discovering since the 1950s - was to recognise the danger and to work together to maximise safety, despite the politicians’ failures.

There’s been a concerted effort from state and mass media to break down that initial response, and to refocus popular demands towards ‘opening up’ and ‘saving the economy’. The state-party bloc and its right-wing allies are seeking to shift blame from government to vulnerable people. There’s a power in the idea and practice of mutual aid that can be mobilised to resist that, as well as weaknesses that may facilitate it.

A Village Covid Aid Group

My own involvement was in a village mutual aid group started soon after lockdown began

It was basically a Facebook group, with a helpline number. It had around 130 members, with around twenty of those posting and responding regularly and as many as twenty more doing something at some point. As I was shielding (I have mild COPD) I built a website. The traffic indicated something I’d long suspected: for most people, and certainly most older or less tech-savvy people, the internet is now essentially accessed via Facebook.

Members are drawn exclusively from within the borders of the council ward. From March through July they dealt with regular requests for shopping, deliveries, prescription collection and advice. Most requests were dealt with quickly and effectively.

The group achieved important positives. It was invaluable for those unable to get help from friends and neighbours, cut down unnecessary public transport use, and allocated extra support for the most vulnerable. Now Welsh statistics, and the Welsh Government, give the impression of something like a return to normal life, the ‘volunteer administrators’ have announced that they'll be shutting down the phone helpline. The Facebook page will continue.

The admins are local government workers working from home. When the rules return to normal they’ll be back at the office. Whilst the group’s been useful in helping people, there’s been no explicit sense that its running has been an outgrowth of council workers’ ordinary role. It's impossible to tell, had that happened, whether members of the group would have tolerated it being strictly ‘non-political’ in the way that the administrators had explicitly stated when setting up the page.

Lives may have been saved from this group’s work. But the ongoing outcome was volunteers relating to each other via Facebook and the council rather than building community themselves. Even the dissolution date was decided by reference to council schedules. Come new Covid spikes from tourism, factories and schools reopening across Wales, there will be no independent mutual aid organisation in this village.

The likely saving of lives is also balanced by uncritical onwards transmission of profoundly cynical government messaging: including building support for VE Day celebrations, encouraging NHS clapping but not facilitating discussion of NHS pay demands, and now in exhorting locals to ‘support independent businesses’ via ‘eat out to help out’. The public health advice offered by the UK government(s) has been relayed without its party political context, whilst World Health Organisation advice has been bypassed. The influence aid groups like this channel may have actually reinforced State-Party messaging towards early opening up, and in opening up dangerously; as well as in encouraging likely voices of dissent to discipline their own communications in the interests of creating community.

In my own case, for example, knowing from the start that this work on the part of local government-employed admins was effectively subsidised by government (whether via the furlough scheme, or through their wages while working from home) would have made me chary of doing the fairly intense learning required to build a website from scratch. I may still have been willing to do it, but it would not have looked neutral in party-political terms at a point when Conservatives in Westminster and Labour and LibDems in Wales were all singing from the same bloodstained hymn-sheet.

Valleys Underground

Valleys Underground was founded late last year, taking inspiration from Undod Cymru’s joining of socialist and pro-independence perspectives, and aiming to move beyond getting the ‘theory and the message’ right to getting work happening on the ground: a rooted community movement, rather than a party – a concept that’s become widespread and powerful across the left since the December 12th election.

The ground, at the start, was Merthyr. Despite tiny numbers, Joe says ‘we were on a good trajectory til the virus’. Valleys Underground had started to put on food events and to take part in and organise community litter picks.

With lockdown, and most members of the small core group shielding, they were near-moribund until mid-May. Members helped with CV writing and design for some of those made redundant from H. Samuel’s, but Joe was clearly disappointed they hadn't made more of this time. They ‘should've put out the membership call earlier’.

In May, they did. They’re now once again running a soup kitchen and community events, and other work such as clearing out allotments, but with around four times more volunteers than they were, and are looking forward to expanding further. Joe’s clearly inspired by the level of passion and commitment that he’s encountered amongst the new members, and in VU’s local communities as a whole. Though governmental responses to Covid-19 have been appalling, especially at the start (‘The best you can say about Welsh Labour is they’ve been marginally less shit than Boris Johnson’), Valleys Underground have found ‘communities are much more willing to give aid than the media and politicians like to make out’.

This does not seem like a group that will be easily hijacked by a particular agenda, or disbanded, or redirected away from their ethos. They haven’t yet hit their full potential to help people within the current pandemic and its accompanying economic crash, and to articulate and demonstrate their values in their communities.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of time.

How both our governments failed Wales on pandemic preparedness

At the start PPE ran short through much of the NHS in Wales and England because of multiple government failures.

The UK government ignored preparedness problems uncovered through 2016’s ‘Operation Cygnus’, and avoided constructing ‘worst case scenarios’ for pandemic flu planning from 2011 onwards. The resulting plan focused on encouraging handwashing.

That’s free, after all. Procurement was neglected.

In scientific advice to the UK governments since 2011, shaped by what those governments were perceived to be willing to hear, the necessity of austerity was considered unquestionable, no matter how serious the medical threats that arose during this period. Because historically and economically, this supposed ‘necessity’ to cut expenditure is a lie, there developed an official scientific culture of denying the relevance of historical fact. ‘Data scientists’ on government committees refused to admit the entirety of epidemiological history since the Black Death - and the very expensive policy prognoses it throws up - as evidence: that across the span of human history, stopping pandemics has meant stopping people moving, and preventing the transmission of disease across surfaces and/or the atmosphere. Instead, committee members claimed to lack ‘new data’ to inform policy, and sought funding for research on that basis. They went further - and sought to advise the government of the economic dangers that the government wanted to be told about. When the real data arrived it entirely backed the historical precedents – in the short term, pandemics are stopped by stopping transmission, and you need to increase expenditure to do this.

It’s not surprising that a New Right government in Westminster should have accepted the bad advice it had solicited, or that it should attempt a weasel-ish rebranding of that bad advice as the science when it conflicted with the globally agreed advice offered by the World Health Organisation. But, to anyone who was less than entirely cynical about the Labour-Liberal Democrat government in Wales, it was shocking that action was so slow. Our government parroted the science instead of thinking independently: mass gatherings went ahead despite huge public outrage, borders stayed open, caravan sites closed at glacial speed, there was no tracing system.

Despite the inadequacy of the Welsh government response, they were finally forced into attempting to do government. This, however, was not to be allowed. On April Fools’ Day it emerged that Westminster was actively obstructing Welsh Government responses. Swiss medical company Roche denied outright the existence of a contract to provide tests to the Welsh Government, despite the FM’s insistence. Shortly afterwards, it emerged that UK government bodies had kyboshed Welsh and Scots’ attempts to source medical kit and supplies.

Our governments failed, and left the governed to pick up the pieces. That’s my interpretation

Tarian Cymru

Carl Morris of Tarian Cymru is more tactful than me in his evaluation of how government performed in protecting its citizens, although he says of the UK situation that, in conversations with experts globally, ‘nobody thought it was ideal’. And later adds that ‘in an indirect way, I was hoping what we were doing would highlight the failings of the Welsh Government [too]’.

It began with a conversation with Gwenno Teifi early in April about NHS staff difficulties accessing PPE. They felt ‘if we could help NHS workers we could help everyone’, as long as they could avoid the trap of normalising charity as an NHS funding method. They agreed that Wales seemed like a ‘logical unit’ to base a crowdfunded procurement operation on.

Initial work was ‘frenzied’. Neither were from health backgrounds. They called experts wherever they could find them, locally and globally; including, of course, NHS workers themselves, whom they treated as a matter of principle as the central authority (‘Of course, these are knowledgeable people. They knew what they needed’).

Tarian reps liaised with each organisation, and made sure there was photo and video feedback once deliveries were made. That in turn was used in turn to generate further publicity and fundraising. The numbers of organisations needing help expanded later on in April when it became clear that care homes were also short of PPE provision, and were where many Covid-19 cases were.

From an idea involving two people, Tarian Cymru expanded to a core group of over twenty volunteers variously doing finance, advertising, procurement, research and distribution. Over sixty others participated. A slew of fundraising projects included a sponsored exercise bike ride ‘from Caernarfon to Edinburgh’ as well as high-profile musical projects from Carwyn Ellis, Elin Fflur and Gareth Bonello.

Over 200,000 desperately needed PPE items, to the standards sought by medical staff and recommended by the WHO, were delivered to 200 organisations right across Wales. The problem that caused Carl and Gwenno to swing into action has, for now at least, been solved.

Tarian Cymru is winding down in Wales, and its GoFundMe appeal is now closed, although they’re going to be ‘continuing to monitor the situation’ here. They’re keeping momentum going, however, with ongoing internationalist campaigns to assist Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar with their Covid-19 crisis, and those facing the horrors wrought by British weapons in the wars in Yemen.

Are there lessons to be learned?

The contrasting models provided by Valleys Underground’s explicitly political yet slow-burning engagement, and the ostensibly non-political but urgently time-focused campaign put into action by Tarian Cymru, both seem to show that it's possible to build effective community action without becoming complicit in the Conservative Party-State and its social media campaigning.

The same probably can’t be said for organising centred upon any one social media platform, or arranged by state employees acting to direct the instincts for mutual aid, however urgent that action may appear.

When new Covid spikes occur - or, indeed, when the many other disasters still to come due to our system’s failure to deal with global climate change strike us - there will be an overwhelming, and natural, urge to just ‘do something’, anything, to help.

I’d counsel some resistance to that urge. A thoughtful pause, at the very least. The kind of help that you give - and the harmful structures you may build or sustain through uninformed, hasty or politically naive help - is every bit as important as the fact of giving it.


    * To find out more about the work of Tarian Cymru and Valleys Underground see https://tarian.cymru and https://valleysunderground.com.

    (Twitter: @ValleysUG, Facebook: @ValleysUG)

    For the next Valleys Underground community clear-up, they will be clearing the abandoned allotments in Fernhill.

    Date: Saturday 29th August

    Time: 2pm - 5pm

    Location: Outside the Cynon Valley Church, The Community Link / 345 Fernhill Estate, Mountain Ash, CF45 3EW. They request to please bring a facemask, sensible clothes, and if possible, gloves. Tools will be provided (but to let them know if you have your own).

© Tarian Cymru.

© Tarian Cymru