Solidarity: an antidote to social exclusion and marginalisation


In the midst of the health crisis, several initiatives were formed to address the feeling of loneliness and isolation. Taking action in many areas of Greece, their priority was solidarity and mutual aid. Using the social media in addition to other tools created during this period, they found a way through social isolation, expressed support and solidarity in practice. Many new collectivities were inspired by social movements developed in Latin America as a collective bottom-up endeavour to deal with crises before and during the pandemic. Other collectivities were more closely related to European experiences, like the Italian and Spanish initiatives putting into practise the idea that “Only the People Can Save the People”.

United Nations COVID-19 Response

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in Greece, the largest part of the population felt insecure. State authorities were overwhelmed by the pandemic and the national healthcare system was unable to cope with the possibility of a widely spread virus. Soon, some long-standing shortfalls of the Greek state became apparent; the lack of public welfare and social assistance for people living under vulnerable circumstances due to the earlier economic crisis.

The lockdown measures taken and the consequent social isolation both shaped an unprecedented situation. Businesses were forced to close; employment contacts were suspended and many people started working from home. The result was an eminent fear of economic collapse, unemployment and overtime work with blurry working hours. To make a bad situation even worse, many workers and unemployed people did not qualify for state allowances; thus, they were deprived of any chance to search or find any source of income. The government daily promoted “personal responsibility” as the only means to prevent the virus from spreading, while the state responsibility yielded under the pressure. A growing number of social groups were prompted to “stay at home” without any protection, not to mention that part of the population had no (suitable) place to live even before the pandemic breakout.

In the midst of the health crisis, several initiatives were formed to address the feeling of loneliness and isolation. Taking action in many areas of Greece, their priority was solidarity and mutual aid. Using the social media in addition to other tools created during this period, they found a way through social isolation, expressed support and solidarity in practice. Many new collectivities were inspired by social movements developed in Latin America as a collective bottom-up endeavour to deal with crises before and during the pandemic. Other collectivities were more closely related to European experiences, like the Italian and Spanish initiatives putting into practise the idea that “Only the People Can Save the People”.

Most groups were created by members of collectivities and/or social centres who were already familiar with the organisation of solidarity actions for the support of excluded social groups (the homeless, unemployed, immigrants and refugees) during the economic crisis. In some cases, however, the social centres were now supported by people who had never before been engaged in this sort of action. In many cities, people’s readiness and eagerness to offer actually increased during the health crisis. This was expressed through various actions taken within the framework of a repetitious daily routine, very much like the scenario of “Groundhog Day”.   

Assertions and solidarity in practice

The actions taken focused mainly on collecting and distributing food or other necessities to people who either could not leave their homes or faced economic difficulties. In many cities, new and existing collective kitchens provided food to the homeless and other disadvantaged groups of the local population. Solidarity was expressed in many other ways. For example, through the creation of self-organised psychological support networks and centres of referral to mental health institutions for the management of traumas and panic attacks triggered by the confinement. Many solidarity groups were highly concerned with the gender dimension of the lockdown, and the growing number of domestic violence cases during this period. Their members tried hard to support each other, seeking solutions within or even beyond the institutional framework.

New initiatives started up every day, asking for better hospital staffing, medical equipment and personal protective equipment for all hospitals and employees daily exposed to the virus (i.e. supermarket staff and delivery services). Many groups expressed concerns about an emerging workplace dystopia, and the fact that the pandemic was often used as a pretext. So, they decided to document labour rights violations and intervene when necessary. They were also highly concerned with police arbitrariness against the homeless. At the same time, an effort began to bring to light the “invisible” people of the quarantine, i.e. those not qualifying for any income support, like the creative economy workers. They spoke loudly about the problems in refugee camps and prisons, where no essential protection measures had been taken, asking for camp evacuation and prison decongestion respectively. The arts were also supported by the solidarity initiatives; online concerts, collective reading clubs, news and cultural radio stations or even online children’s parties were organised throughout the quarantine. 

It is worth mentioning that all initiatives were shaped according to local needs and conditions, following applicable limitations The solidarity groups soon grew in numbers, with their common denominator being not to leave anyone alone. This was the case not only in big cities like Athens and Thessaloniki, but also in smaller towns (Karditsa, Giannena, Kavala, Larissa, Heraklion, Chania, Rethymno, Xanthi, etc) and on many islands (Lesvos, Leros, Poros, etc.)

The “COVID-19 - No one left alone” campaign

A few days after the announcement of the lockdown measures, the “COVID-19 - No one left alone” campaign was deployed in Athens, mainly by members of political organisations and collectivities of the anti-capitalist left.  Its main field of action was to assert healthcare and labour rights, contribute to the solidarity spontaneously expressed by many people and strengthen similar movements and initiatives. The campaign ran based on open online working groups, with the participation of many people who had never before been engaged in similar movements. The editorial team informally took over the coordination on many levels (accommodation, gender and refugee issues). In addition to forming their political reasoning and claims, the campaign members offered help to many solidarity groups and initiatives for the collection of essentials, for example, at the Lavrio refugee camp and the Petrou Ralli detention centre for women refugees in Athens. Their main objective was the creation of a social centre network. This solidarity group and its sub-groups comprised about 120 people, with different levels of engagement. In total, the campaign successfully coordinated actions involving more than 700 people.

The “COVID-19 - No one left alone” campaign also aspired to provide informative audio-visual material about the current conditions of the Greek healthcare system, shedding light on unknown aspects of the daily battle fought by workers on the front line. It has also given voice to the demands of medical health officers since the mainstream media often fell silent. Using online platforms, the campaign brought people closer together, urging them to express their demands from their balconies or support public mobilisations. Such mobilizations were organized by hospital doctors on the World Health Day, and against the new environment bill introduced by the Parliament in the midst of the pandemic, despite the outcry of many environmental organisations and movements. Its action expanded to address issues of civil and social rights, as applied mainly to refugees and prisoners. It should be underlined that the campaign was structured based on practises already known in Greece since the first memorandum period. However, new practices were also invented during the pandemic -mostly related to the use of technology- in order to minimise the effects of physical distancing and facilitate a wider acceptance.

“We Stay Active - Health, Collectivity, Solidarity”

The agenda of the “We Stay Active - Health, Collectivity, Solidarity” campaign was quite similar to the initiatives described above. This campaign was also launched by members of the non-parliamentary left. From the early days of the quarantine, it tried to function as an alternative hub of information about the initiatives taken in various neighbourhoods, and thus support an informal assistance network for people in need. It mainly focused on hospital staff shortages and lack of supplies, as well as problems that daily occurred in workplace environments; concealed or overt dismissals, blackmails, lack of personal protective equipment for supermarket employees etc. It has also pointed out the total absence of protection measures in refugee and military camps. When needed, its members jumped in the political debate to question the inaccessibility of public spaces during the pandemic, condemn the unfair allocation of state allowances to private businesses and denounce the training voucher project. They also participated in many online campaigns supporting the art workers. 

Initiatives in Athens

In Athens, the solidarity groups that already existed before the health crisis were further boosted and new ones were formed. One of the most prominent initiatives was the social kitchen “The Other Human”. True to their motto “people for the people”, its members cooked food and ate all together around a pot. During the pandemic, this communal kitchen received no financial assistance from the state, the NGOs, the local municipality or the Church. Still, they daily managed to provide food to 1500 people in compliance with strict protection measures. The social kitchen “The Other Human” is supported by the very people who receive its food, as well as social assemblies that collect supplies according to the daily needs. The communal kitchen “el Chef” and the “Migrants Social Centre” also provided portions of food to “the Other Human” and other solidarity networks. 

The anti-authoritarian movement has also offered a lot to this end, through the self-managed social spaces, assemblies and squats that survived the recent evacuation operations ordered by the government. For instance, the “Squat Dervenion 56” in Exarchia, Athens, set up a support network collecting food, medicine and personal care products since the second week of the quarantine. For those who couldn’t leave their homes, the necessities were delivered at their doorstep. The squat members, along with many volunteers, also ran a communal kitchen and food delivery service for people in need.

...and in Thessaloniki

Solidarity initiatives were also developed in Thessaloniki. One of the groups created amidst the pandemic embraced members of anti-authoritarian collectivities, leftists and other individuals interested in supporting the vulnerable social groups on various levels. Based at the social space for freedom “Micropolis”, the “Covid-19: Thessaloniki Solidarity” coordination team, following all necessary protection measures, showed solidarity in practice through food collection and distribution, provision of psychological support and legal advice on labour and civil rights. The team closely worked with food cooperatives and individuals who were willing to contribute, in order to cover the needs of families and people throughout the city. Its members also took part in public discourse, asking for the strengthening of the public healthcare system, denouncing police arbitrariness, violations of rights and restricted access to public spaces (as was the case for the New Waterfront which was closed down for the public during the pandemic).      Using technology, they managed to mitigate the sense of loneliness, making an effort not to just stay at home, but also participate in the neighbourhood and the community. For them, people’s attitude towards health was translated into a conscious choice of collective self-protection. The social spaces “Oikopolis and “Pervolarides are two more collectivities that functioned in the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. “Oikopolis” opened its doors a few days every week, so that the homeless and families in need could be provided with food from the “open basket of solidarity”, an initiative that was first launched many years ago. Following the first lifting of the lockdown measures, the team continued to offer cooked food to homeless refugees in cooperation with the Medical Volunteers International, and participated in further actions for the distribution of fruit and vegetables. The social centre “Pervolarides” tried to cover the increased need for free meals when other food handouts ceased during the pandemic (e.g. the soup kitchen organised by the Church). To this end, they distributed meals and food to people in need at the eastern part of the city. In addition, they sewed masks that were later donated to the nursing home “Charisio”, the health centre of Michaniona and other healthcare institutions. 

Examples from the rest of Greece

Solidarity groups were created in other Greek cities as well, under even more difficult circumstances and stricter lockdown measures. For instance, the “Social Solidarity Group of Xanthi” took action in the city of Xanthi. The team was established at the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, and has highly contributed to helping the refugees by distributing clothes at Idomeni in 2015.  Because of the strict lockdown measures, the actions taken were limited. However, the team’s 75 members managed to distribute food, masks and other necessities to the elderly and economically challenged groups of the local population. It is worth mentioning that the members of this group, as well as other groups, were not unaffected by the fear of virus transmission, given that there were many cases of Covid-19 in the wider district of Xanthi and that many local villages were confined for a long period of time.

In Crete, all local collectivities were ready to help the growing number of marginalised people. For example, many actions were developed simultaneously in the city of Chania. The “Sunday Solidarity Kitchen” of the “Social Centre - Immigrants’ Centre of Chania” was strengthened thanks to the participation of various collectivities that provided meals and clothing to homeless people, addicts and other disadvantaged groups of the local population. The historical and self-managed soup kitchen of Splanzia was also on the front line. At the same time, a volunteer networked called “No one alone” was established to operate a hotline for people in need of food, medicine or psychological support, in cooperation with the local municipality. The “Social Solidarity Clinic and Pharmacy of Chania” also helped to this end, collecting medicine and delivering them at people’s homes. The “Rosa Nera” squat has tried to address the housing problem by providing accommodation to unemployed immigrants -forced to leave the shacks they used to live in when the health crisis broke out- as well as the local homeless who could not find refuge in municipal structures.

The most touching initiative of mutual aid and solidarity probably took place at Moria, on the island of Lesvos. The refugees there, although deprived of any state assistance and living under awful circumstances, managed to protect themselves by means of collective action. In the beginning, their efforts were coordinated by the “Stand by me” organisation and the Second Chance School of Lesvos that launched a refugee training program. Their goal was to further train some refugees with basic public health knowledge, in order for them to train other refugees in the camps.  This first attempt gave birth to the solidarity group “Moria Corona awareness team”, that took action to inform the refugees about the necessary protection measures against Covid-19. This initiative started working proactively, even before any measures were taken in the mainland. In a place where confinement was the only measure taken, women refugees coordinated a mask production centre to cover the camp’s needs. Hundreds of masks were made with only a few sewing machines and a few meters of fabric. The same solidarity group urged the refugees to clean their living space by themselves, announced protection measures for people standing in food distribution queues, instructions for water saving and tried to apply protection measures under extremely unfavourable conditions. However, the refugees of Moria were successfully self-organised to revendicate a better living space for them all. They claimed their right to information and social services for cases of gender violence (or other violence) that often occurred in camps. As a result, they practised collective care in a place that is most unlikely to favour this concept. 

The limitations of the digital world

What’s interesting about the movements born or boosted during the pandemic -that are too many to be described in detail herein- is the fact that they were easily spread. To some extent, this is attributed to the social media. This way, it was easier to exchange information and know-how. In several cases, many groups communicated the creation of other groups, and thus the joy of a bottom-up understanding that aspired to cope with a variety of problems caused by the pandemic and the management thereof. The massive online interventions along with the groups’ coordination against governmental regulations that adversely affected large social groups have led to small victories, such as scrapping the unfortunate distance learning voucher program for scientists.

It goes without saying that weaknesses have also been noticed in the organisation of such structures and networks. Most of them derived from the difficulty and fear of movement or the fatigue caused by the “stay at home” daily routine (confinement, long working hours at home, deluge of news reports focusing on “personal responsibility”). The coordination efforts and the discourse often weakened, proving that participatory practices cannot fully function remotely via online platforms.     Such media have helped, however, to organise public demands and mutual aid on a new basis, thus leaving an important legacy for the next day that, in many aspects, might prove to be even harsher.

This article is part of the dossier "COVID-19 Pandemic".