There’s nothing like a crisis to shine a light on the cracks in our socioeconomic systems.
As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, people in Canada and around the world are being encouraged to practice social distancing, but years of cuts to our social services and weakening labour laws are making this increasingly difficult. Workers are being forced to go to work sick because of a lack of paid sick days, tenants pressed for money amidst layoffs fear eviction from their homes, precarious workers are struggling to access Employment Insurance, and low-income communities are struggling to meet basic needs such as childcare, transportation, and food. To be sure, none of these problems are new; however, this pandemic has now heightened their impact to the point where it is almost impossible to look away.
When the state fails to address issues of social justice and inequality, social movements step in. From the civil rights movement to women’s suffrage, political change comes from below, and from the work of grassroots community organizers agitating for a better world. In times of abrupt public health crises like HIV-AIDS, it was activists organizing on a massive scale who successfully pushed governments to take action. A pandemic like COVID-19, however, presents a challenge to this formula.
How can social movements—which rely on in-person social contact to organize community members, rally supporters, and apply pressure on governments—take up the task of organizing for change amidst social distancing?
The answer may lie in the heightened use of social media to organize communities. We are already seeing the beginning of this in the rise of local “caremongering” groups popping up on Facebook across the country. Despite what the name might suggest, caremongering is more than just “kind Canadians” doing their part to lend a helping hand. These groups are highly organized online communities providing mutual aid, combining time and resources to deliver food and essentials to the most vulnerable.
Take the Toronto group CareMongering-TO, which now boasts over 18,000 members. Members classify their posts using hashtags to distinguish between requests and offers for support, information about shops with supplies, news, resources, discussions, and calls to action. One of the latest resources is a Google Doc including critiques of the Trudeau government’s aid package, pointing to gaps in how Employment Insurance is distributed and calling for a freeze on rent, among other policy suggestions. Another resource links to a webinar on how COVID-19 disproportionately impacts Indigenous communities due to inadequate healthcare and a lack of access to clean drinking water. The discussion section of the group also touches on ideas around migrant workers’ rights and border closures, disability justice, the gig economy, and homelessness.
In their 2006 book A Postcapitalist Politics, economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson argue that alternatives to global capitalism are possible, and outline strategies for building upon these alternatives to create a more just world. They emphasize denaturalizing the hegemony of capitalism as ‘the’ economic model, and building upon alternatives to create what they term a solidarist “community economy”.
Caremongering groups suggest that another world is possible, and show that through both action and reflection, we can demand an alternative economic system that works for the many, not the few.
Torontonians and Canadians looking to make a difference in responses to COVID-19 should keep these lessons in mind as they volunteer their time and resources to help the most vulnerable in our society. Kindness is only as effective as the politics that backs it, and we all deserve to live full, secure, and dignified lives even after this pandemic passes.
Only time will tell if social movements will be able to move offline, and successfully build upon the work of online caremongering groups, but until then, the digital commons awaits.
Amanda Harvey-Sánchez is a Toronto-based organizer, researcher, and educator. She is an incoming Ph.D. student in Political Anthropology at the University of Toronto.