Student-organized COVID-19 Coming Together group looks to support isolated Vancouverites and beyond

A group of UBC students and local activists are spearheading a Facebook group meant to provide support to Vancouverites amid the COVID-19 global pandemic — and it’s quickly growing into a social movement.

In early March, as the severity of COVID-19’s spread became clear, student activists from groups like the UBC Social Justice Centre (SJC) and UBCC350 began to brainstorm ways to support their community in uncertain times.

The result was COVID-19 Coming Together (Vancouver), which has swelled to 32,000 members over the past few weeks as the group becomes a hub of activity for people to request or offer help.

“The amount of support that we’ve been getting is just really amazing,” said founding member, UBC student and organizer with the SJC Gabby Doebeli.

“It’s been really wonderful to see folks supporting each other and lifting each other up and showing solidarity with each other in really difficult times.”

Many of the requests illustrate the toll the pandemic is taking on the city’s most vulnerable.

People who are housing insecure make posts asking where they can go to self-isolate. Renters share stories of being threatened with eviction because they are unable to pay their rent. Mothers request formula and diapers and women fleeing domestic violence request food, supplies and shelter.

“There’s just a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation for folks who are already marginalized,” said Doebeli.

So especially for folks with precarious migration status, precarious employment status, folks who are housing insecure folks who are Queer, Black, Indigenous and people of colour, there’s just not a lot of support and attention to the ways that COVID disproportionately impacts those populations.”

For every request, there’s no shortage of offers from people willing to help.

Members offer free groceries and home delivery, Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, masks, medication, toys, clothing, childcare and legal advice. Others organize Zoom chats to stave off loneliness and lend a sympathetic ear. Photographers, counsellors and lawyers have all offered free sessions.

Doebeli said she was surprised by the scale of the community’s response.

“I think we’ve started something really, really beautiful,” she said.

The group’s organizers then decided to expand their efforts beyond the confines of Facebook.

They started a GoFundMe which has raised just short of $60,000 dollars as of April 2. The funds will be distributed to individuals as $25 to $100 dollar grants according to need.

The group also created a website and app for people to give and receive help outside of Facebook, with the option to remain anonymous and select who to receive help from. The app is also available in Victoria and Doebeli said they have seen interest from those organizing similar efforts across North America and Europe.

Doebeli hopes these initiatives can carry Vancouver through the pandemic and beyond. She noted that many of the social supports that seemed unimaginable before the pandemic could and should become permanent.

“We saw this as a really critical point to step up and show solidarity and also to amplify social movements that have really been fighting for a change that we now see as necessary for a really long time. And so this is like a really critical moment for this organizing to take place,” she said.

“It’s not really about us,” Doebeli added.

“It’s about the collective power of community coming together and it’s about the potential that each and every one of us has in contributing to improving the lives of people around us.”