Collective Trauma & Coping through Mutual-Aid

Illustration by Ivonne Navaro 

May 21, 2021
By Kavya Narayanan & Ganga Nair

Around the world, epidemiologists are constructing short- and long-term projections as a way to prepare for, and potentially mitigate, the spread and impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Although their forecasts and timelines vary, modellers agree on one thing: The future depends on a lot of unknowns, including whether people develop lasting immunity to the virus, whether seasonality affects its spread, and — perhaps most importantly — the choices made by governments and individuals.

Collective Trauma

Trauma often results from a disruption in  our ability to make meaning of; or process an event. Collective Trauma, however, is a shared emotional reaction, to a terrible event, over a shared span of time. 

Events such as wars, natural disasters, genocides and pandemics such as the COVID-19 pandemic can lead to collective trauma or long-term psychological effects that are experienced by a large group of people.  Such events can lead to heightened vigilance, increased fear, and challenges to individual and collective identity.

In the broadest sense this collective trauma will be experienced globally, but more specifically and disproportionately by certain subgroups of people exposed more directly to the impact of the pandemic, such as health and mental health care workers as well as marginalized and vulnerable groups such as the elderly, single parents and minority communities. 

Experiencing a traumatic event, collectively and within a shared cultural space means that trauma no longer remains  a personal issue, but also brings to focus it’s systemic & political determinants.

So how can we together create environments that help us to be truly present and relate more meaningfully to support our mutual past so it can become integrated into the present?

While the mental health impacts of Covid-19 are real, it’s also important that we are careful not to pathologize  normal human responses to adversity. 

If we automatically reach for frames like ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, or ‘mental health crisis’ to understand what is happening, we may inadvertently make suffering worse by catastrophizing the conversation around mental health, making people feel broken, helpless and dependent on medical services that may be overstretched or non-existent, while undermining informal and communal coping mechanisms.

What’s more, there is evidence from previous epidemics (like SARS), as well as other kinds of emergencies, that people in crises don’t just find ways to cope with the negative mental health impacts, but also report positive effects, such as greater sense of community, meaning, and spirituality – sometimes summed up in the term ‘post-traumatic growth’. There is evidence that during wartime, for example, suicide rates decline as people feel a greater sense of connection and purpose. There is also some evidence of a higher sense of meaning in key workers during the pandemic. This can in turn have long term health benefits: a strong sense of meaning and purpose has been found to lower the body’s allostatic load (the ‘wear and tear’ on the body from chronic stress) across life-spans.

In some ways, then, Covid-19 invites us to to notice how the flourishing of individual and communal coping responses – through arts, nature, religion and spirituality, hobbies, volunteering, mutual aid, play, learning, activism and other areas – offers us a different way of approaching and thinking about both mental ill-health, and about wellbeing and human flourishing. This leads us to explore mutual aid in times of crisis and how it can have effects that bleed out into political and social life outside the pandemic. Caring for the community can build alternative social relationships and change dominant ideas about how society works.  

Mutual aid has been predominantly conceptualized as where a group of people organize to meet their own needs, outside of the formal frameworks of charities, NGOs and government. It is, by definition, a horizontal mode of organizing, in which all individuals are equally powerful.

There are no ‘leaders’ or unelected ‘steering committees’ in mutual aid projects; there is only a group of people who work together as equals. Mutual aid isn’t about “saving” anyone; it’s about people coming together, in a spirit of solidarity, to support and look out for one another.” While these are useful and familiar conceptualizations, there is flourishing community care in many local indigenous communities that is not recognized under the definition. In many cases, this care also takes form through charitable practice, which is largely excluded from the definition. 

Mutual aid groups have created a hyperlocal infrastructure of care that includes diverse digital platforms and applications, as well as physical media such as leaflets and posters. Members of these groups have also developed common organising practices and social norms. The interpersonal relationships fostered between neighbours who need and receive help can go across generational, racial, gender and political divides.

This care may take many forms as needs change, but one thing is for sure: by strengthening the relationships of people living in geographical proximity, the problems of health, isolation, discrimination, unemployment or housing are no longer experienced as abstract societal issues, but as local realities that are affecting someone you know personally. This can have a powerful impact on political mobilisation and social transformation.

Community resilience and focus in India

The Covid-19 era and its inevitable long-tailed aftermath present a critical opportunity for global and south Asian mental health programs to examine determinants of community resilience (as was done after the 2008 tsunami in Asia), and build on ethno-cultural practices already located in communities with a view to developing grounded interventions and strengthening existing coping strategies. This dialogic approach could increase partnerships, and vest agency in people who are typically excluded.

Such examples of mutual aid have already been witnessed in India, with the Panchshil Buddha Vihar mobilizing care and coming together in Dalit solidarity in Mandala during the pandemic, Muslim charitable organizations taking care of medical needs in poor and underserved communities, establishing community-based health centres, promoting public health education, and offering moral and economic support for people struggling to navigate a challenging and often inaccessible medical system. 

Normalizing inter-dependence & learnings from disability interventions and literature

Author Srinidhi Raghavan, in her article, “In a world that often interprets ‘care’ as ‘burden’, interdependence should be valued beyond disabled community”, emphasizes the need to reimagine the ways in which we care for each other, moving beyond a narrow and limiting understanding of care as dependence and as burden, and instead, re-conceptualizing care as pleasure, as the joy of coming together.

She quotes disability justice activist Mia Mingus: “Interdependence moves us away from the myth of independence, and towards relationships where we are all valued and have things to offer. It moves us away from knowing disability only through ‘dependence’, which paints disabled bodies as being a burden to others, at the mercy of able-bodied people’s benevolence.”

Turning to differently-abled wisdom would benefit us all. Like Mia Mingus says: “Interdependency is both ‘you’ and ‘I’ and ‘we’. It is solidarity, in the best sense of the word. It is inscribing community on our skin over and over and over again. It is truly moving together in an oppressive world towards liberation and refusing to let the personal be a scapegoat for the political.”

When we talk about communities of care, we could stop conceptualizing community care and resilience through a predominantly western lens and pull to focus already flourishing local methods of collective care especially among historically marginalized and indigenous communities. In this sense, mutual-aid and it’s very tenets and collective care; can prove to be a powerful armor to shield against, and in many ways reverse, the emotional and mental fallout, from crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic.


Raghavan, S. (2020) In a world that often interprets ‘care’ as ‘burden’, interdependence should be valued beyond disabled community. Firstpost.

Editor, O. (2020, July 16). Long Before COVID-19, Muslim Communities in India Built Solidarity Through Mutual Aid. InDepthNews.

Scudellari, M. (2020). How the pandemic might play out in 2021 and beyond. Nature, 584(7819), 22–25.

Cherry, K. (2020, May 22). Collective Trauma From COVID-19. Verywell Mind.

Evans and Evans. Collective Resilience :How we’ve protected our mental health during Covid-19, (

Creating a hyperlocal infrastructure of care: COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups. (2021). Retrieved 20 May 2021, from

MHI : Mariwala Health Initiative. (2021). Retrieved 20 May 2021, from