How to Respond to a Pandemic When Our Institutions Can’t

Panthea Lee
Published in
10 min readApr 8, 2020

As people everywhere grapple with the failure of public agencies to respond effectively to COVID-19, they’re taking matters into their own hands. Institutions would do well to take some pages from the organizer’s playbook.

A mural in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Photo by Tiffany Hagler-Geard

“I’d like some food, please,” says the soft voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, of course. What would you like?” I ask.

“Food.” Pause. “Any food. We eat everything,” she says. I hear a twinge of a Carribean accent.

“Yes, we’d be happy to deliver food! What do you like to eat? We want to make sure to get things you enjoy.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Rice, cans, pasta… really, any food.”

“What about some fresh vegetables?” I offer. “Or some protein — maybe some meat?”.

There’s a long pause on the line. For a minute, I thought I had lost the connection.

“Fresh vegetables?” comes the voice. “Meat? You… you can do that?” Each word is quiet, slow, cautious.

My eyes well up. “We would absolutely love to.”

10 minutes later, I had taken down Geraldine’s information (not her real name). She was 72, and lived about six blocks from me, in a public housing complex, with her husband who was recovering from a recent stroke. I explained to her that her grocery list — which we’d filled with chicken thighs, broccoli, collard greens, apples, bananas, eggs, and honeybuns, in addition to pantry staples — would be delivered the following day by a young volunteer, also a fellow neighbour.

Geraldine couldn’t believe that I wasn’t with any organization or government. Or that she wouldn’t have to pay for her groceries.

Honestly, I could hardly believe it either.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by William Newton

We Are #BedStuyStrong

I’m just one of 2,600 members of Bed-Stuy Strong, a 3.5 week old mutual aid group serving the central Brooklyn neighbourhood made famous by Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. Home to tree-lined streets, beautiful brownstones, and many locally-owned shops, Bed-Stuy…

Panthea Lee

writer, activist, and transdisciplinary strategist / designer / facilitator in service of life and liberation