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A Student’s Perspective: Community-Building and Mutual Aid | Nick McAlpin | #LetsResetNormal

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Freelance journalist and student, Cambridgeshire, UK

As a social scientist in training, it has become second nature for me to intently observe the minute changes in the comings and goings of everyday life. While this is occurring all the time, the novel coronavirus outbreak has marked a particularly severe and obvious moment of social reconfiguration. Aside from the general closure of pubs, restaurants and shops and the institution of social distancing measures, students have faced much anxiety and uncertainty over the status of their lectures, research and exams. Nevertheless, now that the UK is implementing far more restrictive lockdown measures, it is critical to find a message of hope to keep us going.

For me, and perhaps many students, this is a simple task. The combined effect of having to rely on others by necessity, given the challenges posed by the present pandemic, and the sense of empathy and solidarity generated by sharing in this experience has brought the student community together like never before. This is certainly true of those on my course. In mid-March 2020, when it first became apparent that COVID-19 would pose a serious threat to the UK, a classmate returned home to Sweden to avoid being trapped here. The day before he left, he gave me all the food he had: rice, carrots, chickpeas and a mountain of pasta that he’d stocked up on a few weeks prior. At that point, my cupboards were bare and panic buyers had made it exceedingly difficult for me to find food. I was touched by his kindness. Soon after, a doctoral candidate headed home by aeroplane leaving the Gardening Society her avocado plants. Then, a student house down the road from us suddenly came down with a suspected case of the virus. Students jumped into action, sourcing paracetamol from all over town and doing their food shop for them. As their assigned volunteer helper, I was inundated with messages from fellow students asking how they could chip in and checking if everyone was alright.

This is what one might call mutual aid. Similarly to how I have described it elsewhere, mutual aid is sustained voluntary assistance among equals for common gain. I’ll do for you what I can to help you meet your needs, and you do the same for me and others in our community because we recognise that not one of us can do it on our own. This reinforces the fact that we are all in the same position now. And once someone does an act of kindness for you, you feel almost obligated to pass it on. This builds community since it creates a never-ending web of interdependence and feelings of warmth for one another.

For my Social Anthropology cohort, collaboratively writing a letter to our department seeking clarification on changes to our studies, venting to one another about fieldwork cancellations and, as mentioned, material support has seen us our friendship bonds renewed. On Saturday, 21 March, we organised a Skype e-drinking session, where some drank cider, others wine and others tea. A wonderful time was had by all – so much so that we’ve now decided to make this a weekly affair. I’m now in daily phone contact with members of the class I had never texted prior to this crisis. Many of us have remarked that the deepening of our friendships with others on the programme has been a silver lining amidst all the uncertainty and panic. This is something to hold onto and which I have found grounds me. Fortunately, I believe this isn’t a possibility restricted solely to students. The rise of mutual aid groups in villages, towns and cities up and down the entirety of this country attests to that.

My advice is to focus on building community spirit by looking out for one another. Not only will this get us through the tough times ahead, but it’ll serve us well as we come to fight existential crises in future, with climate change being foremost among them.

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A Student’s Perspective: Community-Building and Mutual Aid | Nick McAlpin | #LetsResetNormal

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