This week a mum I’ve never met posted an anxious request for help on Facebook. Her two children were sick and she couldn’t leave the house to shop. All online delivery slots were taken. She wasn’t being paid until the next day but her kids were already hungry. She asked if anyone out there could help. Would you?

Moral questions like this now scream at us every day. Never has it been more important to help your neighbour; never has it been more difficult. As well as the usual risks associated with volunteering in cases like this – the contact with children, the financial risk, potential abuse – we have the new danger that helping may unwittingly spread corona. Gloves, masks or personal protection equipment that would usually help is hard to come by.

If we want to help responsibly, we have to be honest about this tension. We have to walk the line between harmful neglect and risky interference, between respecting isolation and supporting the vulnerable. We have to honestly weigh up the risk of doing something, vs the risk of doing nothing. This can sound Machiavellian, but it is not. There is no point rushing in and playing the hero if you end up spreading corona and overwhelming the NHS. 

But we also have to be aware that the scale and speed of this crisis means that we cannot just rely on the old ways of doing things. Usual charities and support networks are overwhelmed by demand and many of their usual staff are sick or self-isolating.  Usually people might call mum to help with something, but now mum might be self-isolating. People are suffering now, and recruiting replacements is difficult when you can’t hold interviews and DBS checks in normal conditions can take weeks to come through. If we are going to help those in urgent need of food and medical supplies now, we will need to harness the huge energy and power of our neighbours.  

Like many of you reading this, I hear of these powerful stories every day. This week I heard a complete stranger sent his spare masks to an elderly couple he’d discovered were worried about living with their sick lodger; I heard of two neighbours who’d lived on the same street for years but never met suddenly connecting through social media and sharing a sterilised thermometer, I’ve read people admitting that they stockpiled a few too many loo rolls and sharing them out and I’ve seen new young volunteers show up at our NightWatch homeless charity to substitute for the regular, older volunteers that have gone into isolation. 

Perhaps my favourite story of the week started when my local soup kitchen was facing closure because it couldn’t source ingredients. A local café heard through our Croydon Mutual Aid Network (https://www.facebook.com/groups/croydoncovid19/) and donated everything they had. The homeless clients were slightly surprised to see their regular dishes replaced with beetroot hummus, courgette bread and horseradish cream, but one woman told me she was so grateful that there was something and that she hadn’t been left alone.

The question then is not so much help or not help, but how can we help safely. The UK Mutual Aid Network has some good guidance which we followed to support our mum. First, we tried to find a volunteer from a small local group near her. We asked the volunteer for proof of address and photo ID, but told the mum that we weren’t professionally trained to check those formally. We recommended a £30 limit on the shopping. We let the volunteer know there was a risk of going to a house where children were sick, and made sure she called by phone when she arrived and had time to step two metres away before the mum answered the door. We checked on both the mum and the volunteer when the job was done to make they were safe. By midday, the shopping was delivered, the volunteer felt a sense of agency and the family were grateful and fed. The money was repaid in full the next day. 

Loving our neighbours, then, is the way we are going to get through this. This brave new world doesn’t exclude voluntary action; it demands it on a scale we haven’t seen before. None of this means replacing traditional institutions; it does mean working in partnership with them. I’m proud our Croydon Mutual Aid group is in regular contact with the council, organised charities and NHS and government guidelines. Ultimately it will be the combination of these traditional institutions and the energy of our communities and neighbours that will help us get through this – together.