On April 29, Surya Pratap Singh, a retired IAS officer, posted a video on Twitter of a tearful woman standing outside Tender Palm Hospital in Lucknow. The woman said that her father’s oxygen levels had dropped to single digits when the hospital faced an acute oxygen shortage. She challenged the government of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to arrest her for openly discussing the lack of oxygen in the state’s hospitals. This was a reference to Adityanath’s order to officials to take action under the National Security Act and seize the property of individuals who were trying to “spoil the atmosphere” since he claimed there was no shortage of oxygen at all, The Hindu reported.

As India’s medical and bureaucratic infrastructure collapsed due to a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases during the second wave of the disease in India, Twitter, with only 17.5 million users in the country (a mere 1% of the population), became a critical lifeline. Thousands of users took to the website to crowdsource medical resources such as hospital beds, remdesivir, plasma, and oxygen. At a time when the state abdicated all responsibility, 519,000 individual accounts engaged with emergency tweets between March 1-April 21, connecting users to medical resources despite such threats to seize their property and arrest them.

By filling the gap created by the absent and in some cases malicious state, these volunteers were conducting an exercise in mutual aid – a “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them”, as US lawyer Dean Spade defined the term in Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next).

Two-pronged approach

As an organisational theory, mutual aid has a two-pronged approach: to coordinate to provide immediate relief, and to advance political consciousness by exposing the systems that create these crises in the first place. By verifying leads, organising fundraisers, and delivering food items while simultaneously exposing governmental complacency and defying governmental threats, relief work volunteers are building audacity as capacity, that in the words of Dean Spade, is critical in translating our efforts into long-term mobilisation.

When Bilkis Dadi and other Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh took over a busy Delhi highway to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019, a decentralised network of audacious volunteers emerged. They helped sustain the biggest agitation against the Bhartiya Janata Party until then. These volunteers arranged shelter, set up langars or community kitches, offered water and medical aid, built a library, and transformed the protest site with their art for resistance.

Similarly, when lakhs of farmers arrived at Delhi’s borders to protest the three farm laws, unions and volunteers converged to offer langar, blankets, mobile charging points, and medicines to meet the protestors’ immediate needs. Understanding the importance of political education, they also set up a temporary school and library for the children and adult protestors at Singhu Border.

While both movements were interrupted by Covid-19, their premise of solidarity instead of charity has politicised an entire generation of Indians and given them the tools and audacity to resist state suppression.

While mutual aid has a rich history, Black and indigenous communities in the United States have played a great role in popularising it in the recent past. Due to the occupation of Indigenous land by the United States, many indigenous communities such as the Navajo Nation experienced food shortages that led to a continent-wide food sovereignty movement. By encouraging people to grow their own food, food sovereignty movements reclaimed cultural practices, involved tribal members in mutual aid, and bypassed industrial food systems imposed by the US government.

Similarly, to help Black people and other oppressed groups meet their basic necessities and acquire resources for self-determination and empowerment, the Black Panther Party – a Black Power political initiative founded in Oakland, California – organised over 60 survival programme in the 1960s and ’70s.

These included free services such as a breakfast programme for children, medical clinic, legal aid, ambulance services, clothing programmes and cooperative housing. By fulfilling the needs left unmet by a racist state, indigenous and Black mutual aid efforts marry community service with political activism that is, as US activist Mariame Kaba notes, focused on challenging power and oppressive systems.

At a time when many are desperate for the immediate crisis of Covid-19 and the long-term crisis of governmental complacency to end, mutual aid elucidates a path forward. It empowers those engaged in it, invites collaborations from other movements struggling for similar outcomes, and presents alternate models for seeking justice and care that collectively contribute to building long-term mobilisation. Mutual aid makes it possible to push back against the individualism promoted by capitalism and authoritarian governance that allows some to flourish at the expense of others.

But while mutual aid might be an effective mobilisation strategy, it is not a panacea. It alone cannot replicate the scale at which the state operates, nor does it intend to do so. Mutual aid is inherently without hierarchy – it is an engagement in consensus-building and horizontal organising, traits that are antithetical to the state.

Therefore, despite its roots in anarchist theory, individuals can engage with mutual aid to also demand the restoration of a welfare state. They can demand that the state build physical infrastructure, such as hospitals and oxygen plants, and social infrastructure, such as the network of Asha workers, knowing that in our current political realities, it is the only way to adequately respond to the scale of the Covid-19 crisis.

Mutual aid galvanises and creates conditions of possibility for change. Through direct action and unwavering solidarity, it helps build tools and capacities than can sustain struggles against a state that is malicious at worst and complacent at best. By fundraising, delivering groceries, calling hospitals and medical suppliers, preparing food, and organising langars, it demonstrates that individuals are not just trying to survive the pandemic, but are creating a blueprint for future struggle to ensure a life of justice, compassion, and genuine connection for everyone.

Apoorva Dhingra is a writer and researcher with interests in urbanisation, ecology, and organising for a better world. Her email address is apoorvadhingra@pm.me.