Just before the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the UK in March, a PhD student from the University of Southampton (who wishes to remain anonymous) decided to take action and established the Southampton Coronavirus Mutual Aid Group.
The Group was originally established to buy and deliver groceries or collect medication for those unable to supermarkets or pharmacies themselves because of the pandemic.
As the country edged closer to lockdown due to the pandemic, another Southampton PhD student named Anthony in Ocean and Earth Science, found the Mutual Aid Group on Facebook and decided to volunteer. At the time, the Group had fewer than 100 followers online but now, that number has swelled to over 6,300 including many more students and staff from the University. In terms of active volunteers on the ground, the Group now has over 1,000 linked via WhatsApp.
Thanks to the growing network of individuals involved, as well as charities, Southampton City Council and health services around Hampshire, the Group is making a significant impact in 16 wards of the City. The Group has become referral agents for local food banks which has allowed them to get food to those suffering financially and some of its volunteers are now making scrubs for local hospitals.
The Group also operates a series of telephone hotlines across the City to field and answer requests within each ward. To date, more than 3,000 calls have been made to the hotline, requesting medication or food pickups. Of those, around 2,250 have been unique callers.
“Our relationships with the organisations we’re now linked with allows us to effectively support and/or signpost callers with a variety of problems, despite our network being largely operated by those without career experience in social and health work,” said Anthony. “In any crisis like this, those who were already suffering are likely to be affected most and it has been a driving imperative to ensure we do everything possible to help those in dire need, whatever their individual situations may look like.
“For me, personally, my partner is a ‘frontline’ NHS worker and as the crisis developed I felt a deep motivation to do my part as well,” he continued. “I knew that I couldn’t take any unnecessary risks due to my partner’s position so searched for somewhere I could put my analytical and organisational skills into practice remotely.
“I feel the model of mutual aid and inter-community support we have developed is effective and will definitely have a legacy after the COVID-19 crisis,” Anthony explained. “It has become clear to me that Southampton’s residents really want to help each other through hard times. The support of experts in social and health services and other areas ensures that the community is able to exploit relevant expertise and keep vulnerable people safe and I’m very excited to find out how we can continue to build upon the structure and connections we’ve put together going forward.
Anthony also praises the way his fellow volunteers have ‘exploited’ their contacts for the good of the community with a groundswell of support and participation coming from fellow students and staff at the University of Southampton.
“It’s been amazing to see how enterprising our members have been and the level of talent that has been attracted to this group – we’ve had many people contacting charities and local businesses and championing what we have been doing to their own networks,” Anthony enthused. “The University community represents a significant subsection of our group and it has been a delight to be joined by a diverse range of UoS students and staff at every level – from those providing infrastructure support, talking to people on our hotline or delivering food and medication to those in need. A particularly humbling moment was when a group of Chinese students from the University donated 600 face masks, alcohol rubs and other PPE, which we were able to pass on to the NHS.”
Anthony’s own personal highlight was arranging a food bank parcel for a single mother with three young children all suffering from COVID symptoms and hearing what a lifeline the Group had been to them.
“Every day we receive multiple calls from people who’ve received help from our members and they are unanimously grateful and humbled by the solidarity of Southampton’s community!,” he concluded. “We’ve also received hundreds of pounds of financial donations which we use to buy food for those in urgent need when food bank support would take too long. Some of our members have joined after receiving our help – these are particularly inspiration for me.”
Students respond to community needs
Amongst the Southampton students actively involved in the Group are December Payne, a recent graduate from the Faculty of Medicine who, due to a health condition, is unable to support her NHS colleagues by joining the workforce early. “I wanted to find a way to use my now ample spare time to help others,” said December. “Within SMAG, I help man the hotline, usually for two hours each day and help coordinate the Swaythling ward.
“On Good Friday I received a call from a parent who required a food parcel for their family, but the food banks were closed,” she recalled. “I reached out to the wider SMAG team, and helped organise a food parcel delivery to them a couple of hours later. It has been amazing working with a team of people across the city who all want to support those in need in Southampton, and I am continually in awe of how quickly everyone acts to help their neighbours!”
Ana Mota, a PhD student in the School of Geography, said that as someone who has experienced recent social changes, “the selfless acts and the way so many people have been stepping up to help the less able and more vulnerable people has been so uplifting. I was able to meet so many wonderful people along the way! I help coordinate the Harefield ward, and I am able to see almost daily the difference that SMAG does to our callers. Saying that this experience is inspirational is not nearly enough.”
Third year Medical Student Freya Baxman, became got involved with the Group because he wanted to help out others during the lockdown, as she can’t be with her family. “It was really rewarding to help and really easy to do,” said Freya. “I just waited until a job came up, which was picking up shopping for a lovely lady who lived near me, and it was really simple. All the volunteers seem really great and the coordinators have been doing a fantastic job. It’s a really good thing to be a part of.”
Volunteer and PhD student Sarah Lu from the School of Ocean and Earth Science would normally be based in the lab but unfortunately has been asked to shield due to a respiratory condition but still gains a great deal from her involvement in the Group. “While I’m lucky enough to have an amazing support network, I know many others are not so fortunate,” said Sarah. “I develop and coordinate SMAG’s presence on Facebook to increase outreach into the local community, improve access to reliable information, whilst liaising with other admins & charities to improve and widen the impact of SMAG in Southampton.”
Jordan Brown, a fourth year Medical Student, is unable to fulfil his usual current placements but keen to help out in the community as best he could. “What started as posting a few flyers through letterboxes turned into me helping out answering calls from people who are self-isolating, and then coordinating requests in my area. I’m just glad to be helping those in need and doing what i can to keep the pressure off of my future colleagues” he concluded.