Through interviews with the founders and participants, we explore how a mutual aid network in Poland has provided for tens of thousands of people during the COVID-19 pandemic and what others might learn from their experiment.
This is the second installment in a series exploring mutual aid projects around the world in the era of COVID-19.
When Filip Zulewski got home from work on March 11, 2020, the idea he had seemed simple enough. He had just learned that the university in Warsaw at which he taught would be closed for the duration of Poland’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown; he was concerned about the heavy restrictions the government had suddenly placed on everyday life. He thought of how, when he needed emotional support, he reached out to friends and family. This had given him the idea to start a support group for people who might not have friends or family, or who were not originally from Warsaw and whose families were somewhere else, so people could help each other through what was certain to be an extraordinarily difficult time. The group Filip created on Facebook that day, which he named Visible Hand, began with about 50 of his friends and acquaintances. Three days later, it was being covered in the national media. Within ten days, Visible Hand had become a movement involving over 90,000 members, with smaller groups forming in cities and towns across Poland.
In the first article in this series, we explored the ways in which established mutual aid networks have been uniquely prepared to respond to their communities’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visible Hand is a mutual aid network that formed, almost by accident, in response to this crisis and has already made a profound impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the vast majority of them not having known each other before. Even as it exemplifies the anarchist principles that inspired it, the activists who founded it believe it should not promote any political agenda, but focus solely on meeting people’s needs. Having fulfilled its purpose in the current crisis, can this type of initiative create radical change in Poland, where the far right has gained considerable ground in the government and throughout society?
On July 12, Poland’s conservative incumbent president Andrzej Duda was re-elected by a margin of about half a million votes. The election, which drew the highest voter turnout since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1989, was almost evenly divided between socially conservative, largely older voters in rural towns, and the young urbanites who voted for Duda’s liberal challenger, Rafał Trzaskowski. Backed by Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, Duda appealed to anti-gay sentiment in his campaign, calling LGBT rights an “ideology” that was “even more destructive” than communism, and promising to pass legislation to prevent gay couples from adopting children and to ban schools from teaching about LGBT issues. PiS won the majority in the 2015 parliamentary election; they espouse right-wing nationalist ideals and were accused by the European Commission of undermining Poland’s independent judiciary after imposing reforms in 2017 that lowered the retirement age of judges and decreed different retirement ages for male and female judges.
As of publication, there have been almost 50,000 confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 and over 1700 related deaths in Poland, with the first confirmed case announced on March 4. Poland’s Ministry of Health has been criticized for providing misinformation to the public, downplaying the threat, and for failing to adequately prepare for the crisis. Doctors claimed on social media that the government’s reported numbers of confirmed cases of infection were most likely distorted by the shortage of available test kits. Poland’s public healthcare system, which had been underfunded for years, was unprepared for the pandemic. Hospitals faced a severe shortage of personal protective equipment and medical supplies such as respirators, as well as an insufficient number of staff per patient and lack of training in procedures for such a crisis. Healthcare workers, however, were threatened with repercussions for letting the public know about the conditions in which they were forced to work. On March 20, after a midwife posted a report on social media detailing the situation at the Lesser Poland hospital where she worked, the Ministry of Health issued a written statement ordering medical personnel not to make public statements about the epidemic without permission. She was fired the next day.
Polish authorities instituted strict lockdown measures beginning on March 10 with a ban on mass events; all schools were closed on March 12. On March 20, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared a state of “epidemic threat,” even though the number of people infected per capita was lower in Poland than in the other 22 EU countries; on March 31, Morawiecki announced a regulation prohibiting minors under 18 from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a legal guardian. Poland started to roll back restrictions on April 20 and continued to do so by reopening its primary schools on May 25. Due to a spike in the infection count, however, the government has tightened restrictions again in August, promising spot checks by police at shops and private events and more heavy fines for people not wearing face masks.
In the first month, Filip recalls, police would constantly check IDs on the streets and impose fines on individuals for violations such as going out without PPE or to do “unessential” tasks such as taking out their garbage or washing their cars. The looming threat of punishment created a pervasive air of anxiety for Poles, as did the new challenges that came with the quarantine, such as how to get their shopping done. Another concern for people with young children was education—a widespread lack of resources and time to work from home while having their kids schooled online at the same time. “People started to organize their lives around education,” says Filip.
Currently employed as a university lecturer in engineering, Filip built extensive experience in anarchist organizing long before accidentally sparking this movement. In 2012, he and his friends created an initiative called Spina Collective, for training in “sustainable activism”—conducting workshops in practices to help political organizers avoid burnout, including training in somatics. He also helped to start the Ada Radical-Cultural Center Collective, a cultural and organizing space, as well as facilitating meetings within Poland’s burgeoning climate movement and participating in the 2019 Climate Camp, a protest encampment to block a coal mine in central Poland.
The inspiration for the group’s name was “Invisible Hand,” a Polish TV program that existed from the 1950s to the 1970s, created by the founders of Poland’s scouting movement as a way to encourage altruism in young people—as well as to keep them out of trouble at a time when they were frequently left on their own due to the widespread poverty the country experienced after the Second World War. Small groups of kids were given opportunities to aid other people in everyday life, particularly those who were elderly or sick, by performing helpful deeds such as painting fences. Participants always provided this help anonymously, leaving behind only a hand stamp, and the TV program would select written reports of such assignments to feature on the air.
The name of this new initiative reflects the vastly different era in which we live today. “Now, with social media, no one is anonymous, so the things we do are visible,” explains Gosia Golawska, who started a Visible Hand chapter in the city of Lublin in eastern Poland. Likewise, in the time of COVID-19, it isn’t feasible for people to help each other anonymously because it is necessary to be careful about having contact with one another. Most importantly, however, Filip stresses the importance of neighbors connecting and building trust during crises such as this. His background in anarchist organizing has provided him with experience in forming affinity groups, and he sees creating mutual aid networks—and giving others the tools to do so—as similar to this.
Visible Hand is only one of the mutual aid networks that exist in Poland. Food Not Bombs, the global initiative to rescue and distribute free food that would otherwise go to waste, has nearly 20 chapters in cities across Poland, which distributed countless meals to people who needed them during the early months of the pandemic. The hardships created by the countrywide lockdown have also given rise to groups that focus on tasks such as walking dogs for quarantined neighbors and preparing and delivering hot meals to seniors.
One of the earliest and most widespread demonstrations of grassroots solidarity to emerge in the current crisis has been the collective effort to support healthcare workers. Even though the Ministry of Health sought to conceal the hospitals’ lack of necessary protective equipment and medical supplies in its statements to the media, it was evident to the public from the beginning that the government not providing hospitals with what they needed. People across the country began to respond to these needs themselves, either as part of existing activist groups or on their own—preparing meals for hospital workers, creating DIY face shields with 3D printers, and sewing hundreds of thousands of face masks, sometimes thousands or tens of thousands per month in one place.
Filip recalls how people would go out in their cars and distribute them to hospitals and to people on the street. “It was a huge movement,” he says. Filip says he saw people who had not previously been politically active get a “boost of energy” from organizing in their communities during this time, and gain a sense of community they hadn’t had before. He also observed how existing anarchist groups were well prepared to put mutual aid principles into practice in response to this crisis; he believes the “social resources” he had built up from being connected with other activists in Poland and abroad have made it easier to establish an effective mutual aid network.
Filip started Visible Hand as a private group on Facebook, but it wasn’t closed to new members. The small network of friends who comprised the group on March 11 began to invite other friends, and it grew exponentially. The initiative got its first media coverage on its second day of existence, in an online newspaper. By Friday, March 13, it had been widely covered in mainstream Polish media, including television news.
Filip describes the shock he felt that same weekend when he saw Visible Hand listed on the Ministry of Health’s webpage for pandemic resources. “I said, ‘What’s going on? Why is the government talking about this anarchist mutual aid stuff?’” He recalls giving about 70 interviews in the first two weeks, sometimes five interviews a day, as the growing movement was covered by Polish newspapers, TV, websites, radio and podcasts. Because he didn’t want to take all the credit or be seen as the “leader” of what was actually a communal effort being undertaken by many people, he asked his friends who were involved to give some of the interviews. Soon, the media began to focus more on the local subgroups that had formed, and their respective organizers were giving their own interviews.
When the original nationwide group began, the members mostly discussed concerns about how to survive the quarantine, such as how to shop for groceries safely, as well as their need for emotional support to cope with fear and loneliness while confined to their homes. At the time, a friend of Filip’s had recently returned to Warsaw from abroad and was not allowed to do her own shopping while under strict quarantine, so group members coordinated with each other to assist her and other people in similar situations.
“People started solving different problems in a very creative way,” he says. Posts listing people’s needs would spark discussions on the group page in which members would resolve each problem using “community brainpower.” Filip describes one case in which a group of Poles were looking for a way to return to their country from Cape Verde. The pandemic had caught them on a visit to the island nation off the western coast of Africa, as countries were slowly closing their borders and stopping air traffic. Internet users combined their efforts to find connections that had not yet been canceled, and after four days, the group landed safely in Poland and began quarantine. This is just one of thousands of such examples of what the group could do, Filip says.
In each post, group members used one of two hashtags, #ihaveaneed or #icanhelp, and specified where they were located. While many people posted what they could provide, Filip recalls, it often didn’t match the posted needs. “There were many people who said, ‘I can walk the dog.’ On the other hand, there were many, many people who said, ‘I don’t have a dog, but I need somebody to talk with me.’” The moderators of the nationwide group decided it would be best to prioritize the need posts during that initial stage.
As the membership of this group increased, many noticed that the effectiveness of the discussions around solving problems suffered. Filip’s friends had offered to help moderate the posts, of which there were between 200 and 300 each day; about 40 people worked diligently to keep the group on point. Filip recalls, “We were writing to people, ‘This is not the place to chat about the political situation in Poland. We are in deep shit, of course, but let’s not talk about this, let’s talk about other people’s needs. This is the group’s main aim.’”
It became clear to the moderators that smaller groups would be more constructive, and that communities would be better able to help each other if they organized locally. This was when Filip decided to “outsource” the idea. He asked friends to help by establishing regional chapters where they lived, and created a simple guide to help people start and operate chapters autonomously in their own neighborhoods. Less than two weeks after the creation of the first group, there were over 150 local chapters of Visible Hand throughout the country, as well as a subgroup for internationals in Poland, a separate one specifically for Ukrainians in Poland, and subgroups for Poles abroad in cities such as Berlin, Paris, and Vienna, as well as several in Great Britain. There are also groups that focus on meeting specific needs, including one in which people aid each other in finding employment, as well as a group where they can seek free legal advice. Many of the local chapters formed around existing grassroots activist groups, including feminist, anarchist, environmentalist, and Food Not Bombs groups, that already knew how to organize in a horizontal, bottom-up fashion, while others were started by charity organizations utilizing a hierarchical structure.
Approximately 75% of the membership of most Visible Hand groups, including the nationwide group, is female-identifying. Margo Kubiscik was among the group of friends who comprised the original Facebook group. When the nationwide group reached an unwieldy number of members and it became clear that they needed to decentralize the growing movement, she started one of the first local chapters in Lodz, the third largest city in Poland.
The group gathered nearly 4000 people in its first few days on Facebook. “Initially, the majority were women,” says Margo. “In March, there were 85% women, 15% men and less than 1% non-binary people. Now, in early August, 78% of group members are women, 25% men, and less than 1% non-binary.” She says most members both request aid and provide it to others in equal measure. Margo, who is a reproductive rights activist, also coordinates Visible Hand’s reproductive rights group, which connects women in Poland with abortion resources. Poland’s abortion laws are among the most restrictive in the EU.
On the subject of the movement’s gender demographics, Filip says he believes cis males often don’t feel as comfortable stating their needs and asking for help as people socialized as women do. “I think it’s a cultural thing,” he says, though he also believes Polish people in general have become less ashamed to ask for help as a result of this crisis. “When you create these small communities,” he says, reflecting on the outcome of people organizing autonomous chapters in their own neighborhoods, “they learn to talk about their needs, and they also learn how to help.”
In keeping with the guiding principles of mutual aid, decentralizing this movement into autonomous local chapters allows neighbors to take care of each other’s needs at the community level. Filip has observed how people have become empowered through increased awareness of all the ways they can support each other—by sharing tools and appliances, skills, ideas, or simply empathy for their shared fears and frustrations. “There are a lot of discussions like, ‘I have material to sew, but I don’t have a sewing machine. Can you help me?’ People have created a lot of input into the group, but they have also gotten this feeling of community and mutual aid.”
In the early stage of the quarantine, Filip hosted watch parties on Facebook for members of the nationwide group to view movies together, selecting mostly comedies. There would be up to 100 people watching at a time, chatting with one another, after which Filip would receive feedback from many of them, telling him how they enjoyed the experience because it gave them a sense of community even while isolated at home. Once people began to form more local groups, he eventually stopped showing movies in order to give people a chance to connect within their own communities.
Now that most of Poland’s lockdown measures have been lifted, the most common needs for which people seek support in Visible Hand groups are housing and employment, as well as the need this initiative was originally intended to meet, emotional support. At the top of each Facebook group is a pinned post where members can ask for someone to talk with if they are anxious, depressed, or otherwise in emotional distress. During the quarantine, when people posted that they were experiencing crisis as a consequence of being isolated, many would respond with information about programs or crisis lines they could call for help, while others would offer simply to listen. Soon, professional therapists began to offer their services for free.
Margo says people continue to reach out for emotional support every day in the groups. Hundreds of Poles now receive long-term counseling free of charge from mental health professionals with whom they’ve connected through Visible Hand. “I think this is unusual for Poland,” Margo says, explaining that it has traditionally been considered a taboo in the culture to talk about one’s emotional and psychological difficulties. She believes that the pandemic has changed many people’s attitudes about this. Out of necessity, and perhaps because they know so many others share their feelings at the moment, they have become more willing to express them openly, even to people they’ve never met.
A key point that distinguishes Visible Hand from most mutual aid initiatives is that, despite its radical leftist roots, Filip and the other founding members decided from the beginning that the group would take a completely practical approach to meeting people’s needs and not promote any particular political ideology. On each chapter’s Facebook page, the rules clearly state that this is not the place to discuss politics or religion, that the only purpose of this space is to help each other. The job of the moderators is to check all of the posts, and if someone breaks the rules by posting about politics or something equally unhelpful in meeting people’s needs, to mute the thread or sometimes even block the person. “We read every post and every comment,” says Gosia, “so vulgarism, arrogance, racism, or simply stupid, useless comments are not allowed.”
Filip feels it’s important for these groups to be clear that they have no hidden agenda—to build trust not through ideology, but by following through on what they promise to do. He believes this is one aspect that makes this sort of initiative more effective than aid from government or charity organizations. “Transparency is the key,” he says. Having observed the way far-right groups provided aid to hospitals at the beginning of the pandemic while making certain that their “branding” was always attached to the aid they provided, he saw these groups’ efforts as a blatant attempt to gain credibility, and envisioned this mutual aid network as prioritizing what people needed over the promotion of ideals.
The network of friends who started the original Visible Hand group to support each other emotionally, some of whom eventually organized the earliest local subgroups, share a specific background of left-wing activism. Because of this, many of the moderators personally support the initiatives about which some people post in the groups, yet they stringently uphold the rule of no political discussion in these spaces. Margo, for one, describes her own political leanings as “all the way to the left.” She firmly believes, however, that while Visible Hand may have emerged from anarchist principles, it’s crucial for the groups not to get bogged down in political debate, but to meet one another’s needs without discriminating between left-wing and right-wing.
Gosia feels the mutual aid provided in her regional chapter constitutes a kind of resistance even without promoting a political view. “I consider it a grassroots social movement and an answer to the incapacity of politicians,” she says. “Also, I wanted to create a friendly and positive space in contrast to all the fake news coming from the media.”
As government-mandated restrictions are lifted and Polish society emerges from lockdown, the question becomes whether or not such “apolitical” mutual aid efforts can be sustained beyond this particular crisis. Is it possible that the connections formed between neighbors in a moment of unwonted danger can transcend ideology and change the way we live together? Especially in a country as politically divided as Poland is right now?
“Specifically, [Visible Hand] was created for the pandemic and the quarantine,” Filip says. “However, when the situation changes, I would like to see how the groups decide what they will do in their hometowns.” As he continues to observe and learn from how individual chapters operate, he hopes that going through this experience together will show everyone involved how to take care of each other in their respective communities. In this way, they will be prepared for future crises.
“I think we will definitely keep this chapter,” Gosia says of the Lublin group. “It’s not going to disappear. People’s needs have changed, but still we think it’s a very positive and needed place. People already know there is a safe space where they can ask for help any time.”
The main disadvantage for grassroots mutual aid groups, Filip believes, aside from not having access to the same kind of resources as government or charity programs, is the difficulty in maintaining continuity. “When people are overwhelmed with work and their families, there is not much of them left for mutual aid work. It’s good at the beginning of the crisis, creating and maintaining these connections.” While people may want to support each other, he explains, “There is a huge problem of burnout.” Now that lockdown restrictions have been lifted, many throughout Poland are still in need, yet it remains to be seen whether the movement can maintain its momentum as people try to meet the demands of getting back to “normal.”
“To make it constant requires resources,” says Filip, stressing that “resources” means more than money alone. Resources can include anything from a car, to storage space, to people with different professional backgrounds who can provide help based on their training as well as train other people. He believes the power of this kind of mutual aid lies in one very specific advantage, however, especially in times of struggle and shortage. “In my opinion, people can be very inventive when they are in need. And this kind of inventiveness is something that government and charity don’t have.”
Margo plans to keep the Lodz chapter’s Facebook group open indefinitely, and says she too would like to see Visible Hand groups used to prepare for future crises. In the wake of Duda’s re-election as president, she also believes solidarity and emotional support among marginalized people will be crucial to resisting threats to their liberty. “People are very afraid of what could happen,” she says, reflecting on recent conversations with LGBT+ people about the PiS’s promised legislative measures.
“It’s tempting to make this an organization,” says Filip, “but we don’t want to be another charity. We just want to show people they can organize, that they can support each other’s needs in their own small communities. This is something that Polish society somehow forgot.”
He recalls being a child during the last years of the Soviet era. “People were living under a totalitarian regime, so they had to organize themselves somehow.” Neighbors, he explains, formed informal networks of solidarity in which families like his would look after each other’s kids, and share food when there were shortages. Sometimes there would be one phone shared by all the residents of an apartment building, so a person would go to their neighbor’s home to call their family in another city. After the transition to a capitalist society, Filip feels those bonds between communities weakened, making it necessary to relearn how to take care of each other these past months. “The crisis showed us that we can organize this way. And this is my huge hope—that people will remember, and strengthen these bonds, and realize that you don’t have to wait for the government or charity.”
While there is no way to predict what long-term impact Visible Hand will have on Polish society, we can hope that the sense of community and empowerment people have found in these groups will remain with them. Margo expresses how much it’s meant to her personally to be able to do something for others during this tumultuous period. “It’s changed me,” she says.