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The grassroots response to COVID-19 in Madison puts our institutions to shame

We need structural care as generous as our community care.

We need structural care as generous as our community care.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

We’re in the middle of a slow-rolling crisis that by all accounts could soon turn into a nightmare. COVID-19 has already spread around the world and is now making its way through the U.S., causing the most dramatic disruptions to normal public life that most of us have ever lived through. Universities and schools are closed. There will be no March Madness, no concerts, or plays, and many workers—the lucky ones—will be working from home indefinitely. 

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The problems posed by a highly contagious virus with a relatively high fatality rate—especially for older adults, folks with compromised immune systems, and people with diabetes—are exacerbated by our for-profit healthcare system, the fact that a majority of Americans don’t get paid sick leave, and a decades-long campaign to shred the strings of the social safety net. There’s also our inadequate housing, a shortage of affordable childcare options, and the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate on earth, and that our jails, prisons, and detention centers are a public health travesty even when we’re not experiencing a pandemic. 

It’s maybe not surprising that a country that fails to take care of the people living within its borders during the very best of times is not excelling at the task during a global pandemic and the beginnings of the next recession. But even the most hardened cynics have been appalled by the total mismanagement of the response by agencies we’re meant to trust under the guidance of Donald Trump, who has, yet again, proven himself to be the world’s most morally bankrupt lowlife ass in the last few weeks. My own darkest suspicions were confirmed two days ago when it was reported that Trump might have blocked more expansive testing for coronavirus to keep the numbers low to better serve his re-election efforts

As disgusting and shameful as our government might be, community organizing in Madison has not been a disappointment. Within a day of Governor Tony Evers declaring a public health emergency, multiple mutual aid networks emerged, starting with one organized by the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) General Defense Committee (GDC) in Madison. The GDC has been providing mutual aid on the streets of Madison for a few years now, mostly in the form of food and medical support to people struggling with housing insecurity. When I spoke to CV Vitolo-Haddad, a member of the IWW GDC in Madison and one of the primary organizers of the new mutual aid network, they explained that meeting unmet needs during the COVID-19 crisis was a natural fit. 

“It just made sense for us to use our existing capacity and to expand it to people who were all of the sudden out of work and struggling to pay their rent or struggling to get food, either for staying home under quarantine or staying home for preventative measures,” Vitolo-Haddad says. “All the sudden we just saw a lot of people really anxious about how they were gonna get their needs met.” 

The GDC has one web form for people requesting assistance and another web form for people who want to help or provide support by making donations. They plan to organize low-to-no-contact food drop-offs, but provide care visits for people who need it, taking thorough steps to avoid becoming vectors for contagion. But at the moment, the requests they’re receiving are largely for financial support. 

“The big thing that people need is rent and eviction support,” Vitolo-Haddad says. “People have lost their wages, especially servers and other hourly workers, they’re just all the sudden seeing no income because their work has shut down. We’ve been really lucky, we’ve gotten some donations, so we’re just trying to give people help when we can.” 

In addition to the mutual aid network organized by the GDC, there’s Dane County Neighbors Helping Neighbors. The group has been flooded with requests for assistance. A scroll through some of the posts reveals a number of people stuck at home with vulnerable, immunocompromised family members who need help getting groceries, single mothers who need food for children who are unexpectedly out of school, parents looking for formula, diapers, and baby wipes to get them through the next few weeks, and a heartening number of people responding with offers to send money, make a grocery run, and drop off goods. 

In addition to these mutual aid networks, there’s the Dane County COVID Emergency Fund, for which the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County is acting as fiscal sponsor. In just one day, donors gave over $250,000 to the fund. Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club, will spearhead the assembly of a committee of community members with the goal of providing medical supplies for people impacted by the virus, meals for kids during school closures, funds for college students who need food or housing while campus is closed, and funds for seniors who should not risk leaving their homes but might still need food, transportation, or medical assistance. 

This swift organizing and outpouring of generosity is a testament to the fact that many people in this community are caring and good, that they see the vulnerabilities that exist in our society and understand that an emergency as big as this one could mean the destruction of people’s lives if we don’t step up to help. We should feel good that so many people were prepared to do right by others, to put some of their own money towards someone else’s internet bill, or their groceries.  

At the same time, we have every right to be angry that so many people were put in such vulnerable positions in the first place. Further, it’s frustrating that there’s so little infrastructure in place to back up the grassroots—regular, working people helping regular, working people. The potential damage this crisis could inflict on individuals is too great for individuals to absorb all on our own. Mutual aid efforts must be matched by a fight to win some relief from workplaces, landlords, utilities, and our government. 

If you’re rolling your eyes at the idea of landlords and bosses cutting people a break, I’m with you. The frustrating fact of the matter is that our society is not currently organized in a way that rewards slowing down productivity or extending generosity and compassion. The people with the most power and resources are almost always the most reluctant to use them to help others. Frankly, this is how they became wealthy and powerful in the first place. This is why mutual aid is so important right now. We cannot assume that anyone will step up to help us but ourselves. 

One of the easiest things businesses and institutions can do right now is to stop collecting money for goods and services, or to offer them at steeply reduced rates to lift the financial burden off of individuals at a time when many people’s source of income, from artists to servers to Uber drivers, is evaporating overnight. This includes landlords, utility companies, and even grocery stores. If they can afford to cut people a break right now, they should do it. 

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In some cases, cutting out fee and fare collection is also a public health necessity. For example, public transportation will continue to be a necessary service. But if the City of Madison chooses to waive fare collection on Metro buses and does not require people to use their bus passes, they improve social distancing between bus drivers and passengers and eliminate the need for city workers to handle germ-laden cash. The same thing goes for parking ramp attendants. 

Some cities have instituted a moratorium on evictions for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. Cities in Wisconsin can’t. As in so many instances, we have our conservative state legislature to thank for that. We need landlords to offer discounted or free rent to their tenants and to overlook late and unpaid rent. Dane County Small Claims Court suspended cases for a month, which means that they won’t hear eviction cases again until April. This is a phenomenal start, but without further assistance or landlords who are willing to negotiate, more tenants will fall behind due the financial impact of the COVID-19 emergency. Activists involved in tenant organizing should be preparing to have their backs. 

We need bosses to let employees go home and stay home, even if they can’t work from home, and we need people to get paid without the expectation that they will use paid vacation time or sick leave (if they even get it). People will need their sick leave beyond COVID-19, to take time off to give birth, to deal with chronic illness, or to recover from unexpected illnesses or injuries six months from now. Forcing employees to use their sick leave now means exposing them to the risk of job loss and bankruptcy later. 

Utility companies have already been directed to maintain and attempt to restore services to residents who might otherwise be disconnected due to unpaid bills. They need to go further and forgive unpaid bills outright and discount the cost of service to relieve the financial burden on people during this time. 

Barring the sudden miraculous generosity of all of these businesses and institutions, people need actual money. A friend of mine is circulating a petition asking the federal government to give every $1,000 to help them get through the crisis. Congressmen Ro Khanna and Tim Ryan are proposing legislation that would give every American who made less than $65,000 last year a check for $6,000 to get them through any financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 crisis. This is the kind of assistance people need. We also need the government to absorb the costs of healthcare immediately, and not just the cost of COVID-19 testing. These things won’t happen unless people coordinate to exert organized pressure to demand them of our government, something we’ll have to do creatively at a time when public gatherings are out of the question.

People will also need to organize in their workplaces to fight against being pushed into working in unsafe conditions. In New York City, teachers forced Mayor Bill DeBlasio to close public schools with a mass sickout. Workers at a Canadian auto assembly plant walked off the job last week over coronavirus fears. In Madison, city workers upset that the city isn’t doing more to protect them are circulating a list of demands that were designed to serve as a model for other workplaces. These workers are right that the city should set a high standard for how employers throughout the city should treat their workers. On that note, it is frankly unconscionable that workers without adequate sick leave or vacation time will currently go unpaid if they are unable to work under the city’s current plans. 

Our community must be responsive to complaints from workers or tenants about callous treatment by bosses, landlords, and the like. At a time when social distancing is key, we will need to develop creative ways to apply social pressure on businesses that are refusing to match the levels of generosity and care that have emerged among community members. 

Finally, we must free incarcerated members of our community before coronavirus spreads through the vulnerable populations in prisons and jails. 

“Our prisons are gonna get hit extremely hard,” Vitolo-Haddad says. “There’s people who are already suffering from a lot of pre-existing conditions and who are already not getting the care that they need and so that really needs to be at the front of our minds is what can we do to support the people who are incarcerated.”

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