Across the UK, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, communities have been organising at a neighbourhood level to help each other get through. One of these groups is Byker Covid-19 Mutual Aid - a grassroots community group based in the Byker estate in Newcastle, volunteering support for neighbours during the Covid-19 outbreak. They’ve been helping people access food, medicine, and running errands – with volunteers available every day. Recently they’ve also been putting together and distributing food parcels, and we’ve been able to donate some ingredients for them to distribute healthy food to people who need it. Read on to learn a bit more about how this group functions, the work they’ve been doing, why it's needed, and what they might have planned for the future.
1. Tell us about how it all started.
Byker mutual aid came together in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 virus and lockdown. We initially started as a group of neighbours offering to collect prescriptions and food for people. Within a week of starting it became clear that this was not all our community needed. We became quickly aware that a lot of the people shielding and isolating had previously been dependent on food banks, which were now closed and the city council's food parcels were woefully inadequate. Therefore in April 2020 we started receiving a regular Fareshare delivery and things have taken off from there.
2. How many people are involved in your organisation?
Its hard to say precisely, as numbers fluctuate depending on lockdowns, availability, sickness, employment/unemployment, etc. There is a core team of about ten daily coordinators, a volunteer Whatsapp group with 54 members, a Facebook group with 657 members. Within all of these groups there are people who both volunteer with and benefit from the mutual aid group - we try to work in a more circular mutual aid fashion, with everyone being both a member and a beneficiary, rather than a traditional charity model.
3. Tell us about the people you are helping
We are all local Byker residents who have come together to support each other during this time. We are a diverse group of people, single parents, parents, pensioners, asylum seekers, EU nationals, Byker 'old-timers', people who've lost their work due to the pandemic, students, teachers, local labour councillors etc. We all help each other however we can and use the motto 'give what you can, take what you need'. Byker is a council estate with a strong working class identity that involves looking out for each other and helping, sharing within our community.
4. We’ve been in a turbulent period because of Covid-19. What’s been the impact on the Byker area?
Many of our members have lost their income due to the pandemic, while a smaller number have gained new employment within the NHS. Byker is a proud working class area but the Covid-19 lockdowns and pandemic has hit us hard, with many people losing their employment, others having to homeschool and look for/work or study, others have had their Universal Credit claims frozen etc, and the food poverty levels are continuing to rise. This is on the back of years of austerity, Universal Credit roll-out and hostile environment policies which have forced many people into worsening poverty.
5. What steps need to be taken to improve people’s health?
We’re doing our bit to increase access to healthier food, but ultimately, whatever we can do, for our communities health to really improve we need an end to the punitive benefits system (Universal credit), and we need the right to work for everyone (asylum seekers), increased wages and other steps to ending long-term poverty.
6. How do you see the group developing in the future?
We’re hoping and discussing the idea that the Byker mutual aid group could transform into a local food coop which would be brilliant, and could provide greater access to good quality food. A number of our members are interested in plants and vegetable growing and foraging and herbal medicine. We organised a very successful seed/plant swap day last summer and hope to be able to do more gardening related activities once this latest lockdown ends (and Spring returns!) We are lucky in Byker as there are lots of fruit trees and easily accessible foraging places; again once lockdown ends we hope to be able to go on collective foraging walks across the estate.