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Covid-19, mutual aid and the impact of history

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As the writer and activist, Rebecca Solnit, has recently observed, ‘one of the biggest clichés about disasters is that they reveal civilisation as a thin veneer … the best we can hope for from most people … is selfish indifference’. She also argued that this cliché had been exposed by the countless acts of charity, neighbourliness and mutual aid which had been manifested during the Coronavirus pandemic, and that ‘the fact that … millions … are still moved to meet the needs that become visible in moments such as this is testament to something about human nature and human possibility’.

If, as Solnit suggests, there is something inherent about the desire for cooperation, why has it appeared to become less visible in the years leading up to the pandemic? Solnit finds the answer in the way in which ‘capitalism, and its octopus arms of entertainment, advertising and marketing, endeavour to reduce us to consumers’. However, other writers – from both left and right – have attributed the same result to the growth of the welfare state. In the UK, this analysis helped to pave the way for David Cameron’s concept of a ‘Big Society’, but it may have also had some impact on recent approaches to pandemic planning. This issue may therefore have some important implications for our understanding of the ways in which particular views of history – or assumptions about the nature of life in the past and the differences between past and present – have shaped present-day policies.


Mutual aid was an essential feature of working-class life in Britain during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and it manifested itself during periods of both individual and collective crisis. In mid-nineteenth century Coventry, special appeals were launched in 1847/8, 1855 and 1857/8, and charity also played an important role in Lancashire during the ‘cotton famine’ of the 1860s. There were also a number of charitable appeals in London during the 1880s and more than £5 million was raised by the National Relief Fund during the First World War. Andrea Tanner has described how local dispensaries and branches of the Red Cross assisted flu victims in London during the 1918/19 pandemic, and Patricia Marsh and Ida Milne have highlighted the role played by voluntary organisations in Ireland. During the 1920s, soup kitchens were established throughout the south Wales coalfield and the Lord Mayors’ Fund for the Relief of Women and Children in Distressed Mining Areas raised more than £1.7 million between 1927 and 1929.

These examples of informal help and mutual aid were complemented by more formal institutions, such as trade unions and friendly societies. Friendly societies were ‘societies of good fellowship’ established ‘for the purpose of raising … by voluntary contributions a stock or fund for the mutual relief and maintenance and all and every the members thereof, in old age, sickness and infirmity, and for the relief of women and children of deceased members’. In addition to providing opportunities for socialisation and conviviality, they also offered a range of welfare benefits, including sickness insurance and funeral payments. By the end of the nineteenth century, they probably included at least five million members, although this figure takes no account either of dual membership or membership of unregistered organisations.


During the 1990s and early-2000s, a number of commentators argued that the social bases of both charity and mutual aid had been eroded by the growth of the welfare state. David Vincent argued that ‘the advance of public responsibility caused a retreat in public participation’, and John Garrard claimed that ‘the expanded role of government’ had ‘undermined several of the most vibrant elements of nineteenth-century civil society’. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has also suggested that the Liberal welfare reforms of 1906-11 meant that ‘community and mutual modes of thought were gradually marginalised’.

These arguments have not gone unchallenged. Although others have also claimed that the Liberal welfare reforms either caused or exacerbated the decline of the friendly societies, my own research has suggested that the societies were already facing problems before 1911 and that the reforms were as much a response to these problems as their cause. As Pat Thane has argued, ‘there is no sign that voluntary action … has declined as the “welfare state” has grown…. Anyone who doubts the continuing importance of the voluntary sector should try to imagine British society without it’.

However, this is not to say that ideas around the ‘decline’ of charity and mutual aid have not been influential. Maurice Glasman argued that the creation of the ‘classic’ welfare state after 1945 meant that ‘universal benefit replaced mutual responsibility as the basic principle of welfare’, whilst Philip Blond complained that the welfare state had ‘nationalised a previously mutual society and refocused it according to an individualised culture of universal entitlement’. In 2009, David Cameron claimed that ‘the once natural bonds that existed between people – of duty and responsibility – have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state – regulation and bureaucracy’.


If ideas about the ‘decline’ of voluntarism played an important part in the origins of the ‘Big Society’, what role might they have played in pandemic planning? In 2008, Mark Honigsbaum interviewed the UK’s national director for pandemic preparedness, Lindsey Davies, about the possible return of ‘Spanish flu’. After discussing the NHS’s ability to cope with the surge in demand and the need for a sufficient stock of antivirals, Honigsbaum argued that it was ‘the harder-to-predict secondary consequences of a pandemic that [gave] Davies sleepless nights’. The first of these, according to Honigsbaum, was the way in which society had changed since 1918: ‘In 1918, people did not expect handouts from the state, nor did they receive them – instead, they relied on extended family networks, as well as churches, local community groups and charitable organisations. At the same time, there was a strong voluntarist ethic running through society – women volunteered in their thousands for the Red Cross [or] joined land brigades to help farmers get in the harvest’. Nor was this the only way in which the assumed decline of voluntarism was expected to cause social breakdown: ‘Today, society is far less resilient and far more individualistic, making a breakdown in law or order not only possible but probable’.

In general, the outbreak of Covid-19 has not given rise to similar predictions but it is tempting to ask how far assumptions about the relationship between voluntarism, civil society and ‘resilience’ have shaped the evolution of policy to date. At the start of the pandemic, the UK Government waited almost two months before introducing a nationwide ‘lockdown’ policy. The mathematician, John Dagpunar, argued that this delay may have been responsible for more than 20,000 additional deaths across the UK. To what extent might this delay have been influenced by ideas about the relationship between individualism and civil society, and the extent to which the expansion of the welfare state impacted upon these?

Obviously, we cannot yet know the answer to this question. However, as a number of commentators have pointed out, compliance with lockdown restrictions is in itself an expression of civic duty and mutual obligation. If policy-makers believed that these virtues had been eroded, should we be surprised by their reluctance to introduce policies which might rely too heavily on them?


The current pandemic has encouraged many historians to reflect on the uses of history in ‘the time of Covid’. Michael Bresalier and Guillaume Lachenel and Gaëtan Thomas have argued that it is important to avoid facile comparisons between past and present. On the other hand, Virginia Berridge has claimed that historians can play an important role by tracing the immediate origins of present-day policies and using their knowledge of the past to imagine alternative strategies. In this piece, I have tried to argue that it is important to understand the ways in which other people’s understanding of history – or the assumptions they make about the nature of past life and the differences between past and present – can also shape the way these policies are made.


The quotation from Mark Honigsbaum is taken from Mark Honigsbaum, Living with Enza: the forgotten story of Britain and the Great Flu of 1918, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009 (pp. 186-7).

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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