In the early days of the pandemic Mita Hans, a 56-year-old support worker, set out to help her neighbours in Toronto. Everyone was being told to isolate, and people had already begun hoarding essential items. So she decided to start a Facebook group to connect those in need of something with those who could come to their aid.
When Ms. Hans told her sister about her plan, her sister worried that the effort could be misconstrued as fanning fears over shortages.
“My sister said, ‘You know, maybe you’d better be careful because this is fear-mongering.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not coming from a place of fear. It’s coming from a place of care,’” Ms. Hans recalls.
With that, she coined the term “caremongering,” and, along with a friend, she co-founded the group Caremongering Toronto, which inadvertently launched a global phenomenon.
Mutual aid groups that do everything from delivering groceries to those who must isolate to driving elderly neighbours to appointments thrived during the pandemic. Inspired by the sense that we really were all in this together, groups formed across the country to connect all those who wanted to help with all those who needed it. Since then, some have shuttered. But others continue to flourish, providing what their organizers say is a model of community still critical nearly three years since the start of the pandemic.
“The need is worse now than it was back in March, 2020,” says Omar Kinnarath, a 43-year-old community organizer who co-founded Mutual Aid Society Winnipeg at the start of the pandemic.
Mr. Kinnarath points to inflation, the high cost of food, and the difficulty many people have finding housing as reasons for the continuing necessity of groups such as his.
“There’s all these other issues that are affecting our community,” he says.
The group’s more than 10,000 members do everything from delivering groceries to helping people who are coming out of foster care find housing and furniture.
Meanwhile, the founders of what would become The People’s Pantry met through the various caremongering groups that had begun to crop up online in March, 2020.
“Originally, we were just responding to the need for food [in Toronto], which is unsurmountable,” says Jade Crimson Rose Da Costa, one of the group’s co-founders. Eventually, the all-volunteer organization began delivering cooked meals and groceries across Southern Ontario.
But now, the original wave of people offering to help or give money has crested, and the group struggles to attract volunteers and find funding.
“A lot of people want to believe the pandemic is over. And so sometimes we struggle to get support, because people want to think of things like food insecurity and financial issues as just being isolated to lockdown. And that’s not true,” Jade Crimson Rose Da Costa says.
Other groups that began with a unified spirit of goodwill in the early days of COVID shuttered operations because of political divisiveness.
Jane Affleck, a policy analyst for the Native Council of Prince Edward Island, started a caremongering group on Facebook in March, 2020.
“The general deportment, I guess you could say, of the membership was 100-per-cent positive, just willing to do anything to help other people who might need it,” Ms. Affleck says.
But eventually, people began arguing over vaccines and spreading misinformation.
The group closed in January, 2021.
Looking back, Ms. Affleck says the group provided a vital sense of community during a fraught time.
“In addition to the material supports, I think it did give people a sense of hope,” she says. “A sense of community that none of us really had because of the lockdowns and because people were laid off. We were all isolating and apart from each other.”
That collective sense that we are all in this together might have fractured, but many people still want to help others in need, says Maduba Ahmad, a supervisor of special events production for the City of Toronto and co-founder of the Good Neighbour Project.
Launched in March, 2020, the organization has between 300 and 400 active volunteers who operate primarily in the Greater Toronto Area, delivering food to people who contact the group through its hotline.
This summer, the group will launch a separate hotline for isolated seniors to connect and talk with volunteers.
For the next evolution of the caremongering movement, Ms. Hans is in talks with McMaster University to run a pilot project that would see the concept brought to hospitals. Although the details still need to be worked out, she believes those early days of the pandemic showed us what’s possible when people band together.
“Little acts of kindness are life-changing,” she says. “And community care starts when we start seeing everybody as our community.”