Where Coronavirus Help on Facebook Is ‘Inherently Political’

Where Coronavirus Help on Facebook Is ‘Inherently Political’

The three young idealists met before this all started, when the most pressing issues they faced were climate change, environmental justice and ensuring clean water for Detroit residents. They were all organizers of a sort: eager to do the unglamorous work of convincing people that they could dream bigger, and demand more from their government.

They came from very different parts of a segregated region. Justin Onwenu, 23, lives in Detroit, where 79 percent of the population is black. Bridget Quinn, 35, and Lauren Schandevel, 23, are from the overwhelmingly white suburbs of Macomb County, just north of the city.

But when the coronavirus shut everything down, they all noticed the same thing: All around them, people were overwhelmed and feeling helpless.

So they organized. And with nothing happening in person, they turned to Facebook, creating a public group called Metro Detroit Covid-19 Support. Within days it had grown to include thousands of people throughout the area. They pleaded for help with child care, offered suddenly scarce toilet paper and donated emergency cash funds with no strings attached. As the weeks wore on, many people requested or provided face masks, and increasingly, in desperation, asked for help with unemployment.

The pandemic has unmoored already fragile institutions across the country, forcing many Americans to turn to one another for help instead of to the government or nonprofit organizations. With the belief that the system is so broken that assistance will never come, hundreds of people have formed mutual aid societies, designed to allow people to find help themselves. Though the groups’ efforts vary widely, similar attempts to offer assistance have formed in dozens of states, including North Carolina, Texas and Arizona.

The groups are something of a throwback; such networks were popular in the heydays of communal activity, in the early 20th century and again in the 1960s and ’70s. The method is simple: Have something to give? Offer it up. Need something? Just ask for it.


There is nothing inherently political about mutual aid groups — their offerings are akin to bringing a casserole to a neighbor suffering a setback. But the newest crop has been formed largely by young progressives, and their proliferation points to a new kind of organizing that could reshape politics long after the pandemic. For young voters who saw their hope in Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign fizzle out just as the virus upended communities nationwide, the mutual aid societies are something of a balm — a kind of stake in the ground for their liberal ideals.

“For my age group, if we don’t walk away from this moment understanding there are things we really need to change, we will have failed,” Mr. Onwenu said from his apartment one recent afternoon. “It was just so clear early on: This is a generational moment and it’s going to be on us. You look at history and there are certain moments where the psyche of communities completely changes, and this will be one of them.”

In the Detroit area, one of the most segregated regions in the country, the organizers’ most radical idea was connecting people from the city with those in the mostly white suburbs, pushing the idea that they could help each other. From the beginning, the organizers saw the pandemic as magnifying a wide range of existing problems. They view the idea of rugged individualism with utter disdain.

After growing up in Warren, a working-class town in Macomb County, Ms. Schandevel enrolled in the University of Michigan as a kind of escape, not planning to return to a county long known as a stronghold for “Reagan Democrats.” But she became involved in organizing not far from her hometown and has worked for We the People-Michigan since graduating a year ago.


Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

“It’s absolutely an extension of my politics, to try to build a community across race,” said Ms. Schandevel, who is white. “The whole construction of the suburbs emphasizes the nuclear family over all else. People lose a lot of empathy and trust with each other. That’s why our social safety nets are so eroded, we just don’t spend enough time with each other. I think trying to build up that trust is an inherently political thing.”

The way Ms. Schandevel sees it, the more empathy people have, the more likely they will be to vote for candidates who will enact the kinds of policies she supports.

Early on, the organizers created clear guidelines for the Facebook group: no live videos, nothing self-promotional. The idea was to create a replacement for a town bulletin board and to prove that pooling resources is better for everyone. They and a few other moderators would approve messages before they were posted, allowing them to filter out posts that did not request or offer help.

When people began dying from the coronavirus — more than 2,400 have died in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, and over 1,700 more have died in nearby Macomb and Oakland Counties — the organizers faced a difficult question: Should they allow obituaries in the Facebook group? They didn’t want to disrespect anyone. But they expected that the toll would be so high that death notices would overwhelm the board. So none appear. With information and questions about unemployment cropping up frequently, the moderators tried to streamline the message board by putting them all in one place — a “huge relief,” Ms. Schandevel said.

Still, the persistence of unemployment as the most pressing issue for so many members underscores a grim and practical reality: The virus’s impact will be felt for years, shaping public policy. And that public policy is what the organizers are setting their sights on.

“There is a renewed sense of urgency, because this has uncovered so many of the underlying problems we’ve had,” Ms. Quinn said. “Never has the need for universal health care and social safety nets been more clear.”

Slowly, the group has been tackling such issues head on, broadcasting speeches calling for universal health care. The organizers see the work as only beginning by explaining to those who lose their jobs and health care the benefits of a single-payer system.

What the moment has made clear, Mr. Onwenu said, is that a lot of things “we just didn’t think were urgent issues, that we thought people could wait for, that people weren’t feeling in their bones” are now rearing up. “All those systems need to be addressed,” he said. “I think communicating that very clearly to people is going to be our task.”

“Showing the need for health care that isn’t tied to employment status is one of the ways that we make the case for the thing that we already wanted,” he added.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 27, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.