Amid a global pandemic, kindness prevails over fear through mutual aid funds

Online groups distribute thousands of dollars to those in need across the world during COVID-19– but more help is still needed.

COVID-19 has plunged the world into darkness in a matter of weeks. Unemployment claims are at a record high in the US, and millions of jobs are expected to be lost as the outbreak continues to unfold across the country.

But there’s some light at the end of the tunnel: grassroots philanthropy organizations are stepping up to help the communities around them.

At the University of California, Berkeley, a mutual aid program started by students received a flood of requests after merging with a similar on-campus initiative that demanded more pay for graduate student workers. Despite their efforts, however, funds are running low.

Berkeley’s Mutual Aid program redirects student resources and donations to other community members in need. It is one of several student-run programs that have emerged out of schools like USC, Duke University, Middlebury College, and George Washington University.

Rumur Dowling, the program’s co-founder, explained how students’ needs skyrocketed as the coronavirus outbreak unfolded on the program’s GoFundMe page.

According to Dowling, students’ requests run the gamut: from requests for rent or pet care to family support and money for groceries to last them through the week.

While government stimulus plans were recently announced to distribute wealth to Americans in need, Dowling noted that this may not help everyone.

“Many are undocumented students or those who otherwise will not receive Treasury checks through the federal government's stimulus plan, and many others have exhausted their other known avenues of recourse through the university.”

The program distributed financial aid to 61 Berkeley students and staff members as of March 31, but Dowling anticipates an increase in requests as the GoFundMe circulates around campus.

“Initially, the requests were small and infrequent enough that I could manage it with my personal resources or with the support of people that had volunteered,” Dowling said in a phone interview with Annenberg Media. “I’m getting the sense now that the magnitude of need will almost certainly outstrip the donations we’re getting.”

Elsewhere in the East Bay, a different program started by four friends in Oakland snowballed into a massive enterprise that has given out over $150,000 in aid in under one month. The spreadsheet, titled “COVID-19 Financial Solidarity”, matches donors with people in need all over the world.

But as with Berkeley’s Mutual Aid spreadsheet, that success is a double-edged sword: as exposure grows, so does the list of people in need.

“We believe that there’s a moral imperative for people with resources to help people who don’t right now,” said Binya Koatz, one of the founders of the spreadsheet. “I was talking about that the other day with my friends, and one of them was like ‘Why don’t we make this a spreadsheet?’ And so we did.”

“I never expected it to get as big as it did,” said Koatz in a phone call with Annenberg Media. “But we still have so many people who need help– queer people, because that’s where [our group] came from; artists; college students; undocumented people. And thankfully, there is help out there.”

Elizabeth Weitzen is a full-time theater artist who works out of New York. She had all her gigs disappear because of the pandemic. Adding her contact information to initiatives designed to help artists is now, according to her, “literally my bread and butter.”

“I went from having a full-time job doing what I love to basically zero income,” Weitzen said. “I’ve applied to probably hundreds of financial support programs by this point, and only four of them have worked out.”

Although she has not received any donations from Koatz or Dowling, it is through initiatives like those that she’s managed to pay her rent and her health insurance premium for March. But Weitzen isn’t out of the woods just yet.

“If this keeps up, thousands of people are going to die– not as a direct result of the virus, but because our livelihoods have disappeared,” she said. “Of course, I’m job hunting in places that aren’t in the field I love– like data entry– but I don’t know how that’s going to go.”

Although Weitzen is grateful for the help that she’s received so far, she isn’t sure what her future looks like.

“It’s this constant existential dread that is hard to shake. But things like this are what helps to refill that reservoir of hope that dips a little bit lower every day. Every five dollar, ten dollar donation– it adds up,” she said. “It helps me feel seen.”

Find more resources at this Wordpress page, at the Leveler, at the Actor’s Guild, at this spreadsheet for Amazon Wishlists, at the Actor’s Guild and at the Artist Relief Tree’s website. Find UC Berkeley’s GoFundMe here and the COVID-19 Financial Solidarity Spreadsheet here.