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Impact of COVID-19: Digital food collectives in Rotterdam

PhD candidate Vincent Walstra reflects on alternative social interactions and mutual aid in the city of Rotterdam during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dutch response to Coronacrisis

Empty train stations, canceled holidays, sick acquaintances, shortage of hospital beds, people hoarding toilet paper… COVID-19, the Corona-virus that caused a pandemic, has disrupted everyday life, flooded the healthcare system, and halted the economy. Daily talk is all about the Coronacrisis, but where normal live has been distorted, alternative social interactions emerge. The digital space is booming through video chatting, online teaching and meeting, as bulletin board for offering help, for organizing solidarity initiatives, and for pure entertainment. In this review, I will reflect on the influence of the Coronacrisis in my research field in Rotterdam. From my apartment, after nearly two weeks of isolation, I feel the urge to write about this crisis with special attention to digital activities related to the research topics of collective food procurement and citizenship. Since measures and knowledge change almost daily, it is important to note that this review is written on Thursday and Friday the 26th and 27th of March 2020.

On Thursday morning 26th of March, in the Netherlands, there are 6.412 registered Corona cases, 644 people are at the Intensive Care, and 356 people have died due to the virus. Although these numbers are rising, the first signs of a ‘flattening curve’ have been reported by the government. In the past weeks, the Dutch have been criticized for not being rigorous enough in their approach to fight Corona-virus. The government (supported by all but the two right-wing parties) seems to be doing everything to prevent from going into full lockdown. Anthropologists Erik Bähre and Irene Moretti, comparing Dutch and Italian government measures, suggest that this might be because the Dutch approach is relatively much focused on maintaining economic stability, possibly at the cost of human lives. Looking at this Thursday morning’s headliners of the Dutch public broadcaster we can see that indeed three of six headlines are about economic topics like recession, financial insurance and unemployment in times of Corona. Aside from this economic outlook on the Coronacrisis, the top-right headliner shows another development in Dutch communication about the virus. For the past two days, the public broadcaster has emphasized the severity of the Corona disease through expert-interviews, informative videos and stories of victims. In particular, they stressed the possible lasting damage of the disease, also for younger people. These anxiety politics are an almost threatening appeal to individual responsibility, using a rhetoric of individual health instead of collective care. It is likely a response to the lack of collective responsibility in the Netherlands, after a weekend where people seemed to enjoy outdoor activities as if no pandemic exists. At the same time, and this will be the focus of this review from now on, the Coronacrisis has moved citizens to start solidarity initiatives in a twenty-first century fashion of ‘collective’ action, employing digital means of mobilization in times of social distancing.

Dutch news at 09:25 on Thursday March 26, 2020. Source: http://www.nos.nl

Physical Distancing and Social Media

On the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of basic measures against the spread of the Corona-virus we are introduced to what is called ‘’social distancing’’, meaning people should maintain at least 1 meter distance from each other. It is a misleading term, since what is actually meant is ‘’physical distancing’’, a minor but important nuance, as social distancing is the opposite of what we need right now. Because where physical interactions are increasingly limited or even prohibited, social interaction and solidarity activities are persisting, albeit in a different space. Online platforms like Twitter and Facebook, or communication tools like WhatsApp and video chatting services, provide digital alternatives for public and private interaction, and concomitant collective action. The photo on the left, at Rotterdam Central Station, showing a quote from local philosopher Erasmus, seems to be more relevant than ever. 
In their blogpost about ‘’technologies of care’’, Priscilla Song and Joseph Walline report on the explosion of Social Media in China since the Corona-outbreak. They specifically focus on the rise of a civic care system that these platforms facilitate, allowing people to ‘gather’ and provide mutual care through the digital world. In Rotterdam the use of digital platforms is likewise facilitating the continuation of social life. Family and friends meet through group video chats, checking in on each other’s health and circumstances. People reach out to vulnerable groups through the Dutch #coronahulp (translation: #coronahelp) and the international #FlattenTheCurve. In the light of my research, I am paying special attention to how the digital space provides an outcome for collective food procurement practices. Small-scale farmers and food entrepreneurs normally thrive on direct interaction with customers, differentiating from the large-scale food industry by providing food experiences and transparency in direct social interactions. However, direct interaction is now prohibited. Through digital online platforms these small-scale businesses maintain their interaction with customers, which is facilitated by mediating Twitter or Facebook accounts that function as digital marketplaces where these vendors ‘gather’ by retweeting and tagging each other. In Rotterdam, there are for instance ‘Rotterdamse Oogst’ (normally a local farmer’s market), ‘Rechtstreex’ (online short chain supermarket), and ‘Voedselfamilies’ (network connecting short food chain initiatives), who regularly tag, retweet or are tagged and tweeted at by small-scale local producers. Aside from tagging each other, they incentivize people to buy locally with the #supportyourlocals, calling for solidarity purchasing at small-scale and local vendors. From my own experience at one of about forty distribution points of Rechtstreex (see photo), I can tell that the amount of orders has doubled, if not tripled, since the government introduced Coronavirus measures two weeks ago. Thus, the Coronavirus might have created physical distancing, but socially people have merely shifted their means of communication to the digital spheres. In some cases, the Coronacrisis has even proven to be an incentive for increased solidarity through sharing online resources like social networks, or through initiatives for solidarity purchasing. 

’Space separates bodies, not souls’’ – Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)
Rechtstreex distribution point Coolhaven – Mara, normally working alone, has three volunteers helping her out now that orders have almost tripled

Food provisioning and digital mobilization

If anything, the Coronacrisis makes us aware of the interdependency of human beings worldwide, be it in trade, care, food procurement, or mere social contact. Positively, the abundance of digital alternatives invented in the past three decades creates a social space where we can maintain physical distance and social contact simultaneously. On the opposite, however, this shift of social life to the digital space revealed a generational gap that is causing exclusion. Take the example of #coronahulp. People are patting each other on the back for their demonstration of solidarity and generosity, whilst rarely someone in need replies to a #coronahulp-tweet. From a conversation with the initiator of a Twitteraccount initiated to aid people in Rotterdam during Coronacrisis, I learned that zero people responded to the offer of aid. According to the initiator of the account, the people in need are not ‘online’. This issue was noted by a food recuperation collective in Rotterdam, called Groenten Zonder Grenzen (GZG; Vegetables Without Borders). Their way of organizing is exemplary for the social function of another digital tool, WhatsApp. This collective uses WhatsApp as a means for online private gathering. Whereas public social platforms are used for discussing and sharing, WhatsApp facilitates collectiveness and mobilization, like in the case of the Coronacrisis:
On Monday the 16th of March, one of GZGs volunteers posts a call for action in the general WhatsApp group of GZG, which has seventy members. In the next two hours the Appgroup is overloaded with messages of people brainstorming about what they can do to fix the humanitarian issue of people not being able to get access to healthy food. After the WhatsApp group has become overloaded with ideas, one of the initiators of GZG starts a new Appgroup for people who want to be involved in setting up a coronaperiod spin-off. It is the birth of a temporary Groenten Zonder Grenzen initiative called Veggie Rescue. Three days later, on Friday the 20th of March, the group has arranged a list of companies that are willing to freely hand over their food waste, a location for sorting the products, addresses to deliver boxes of food to, an action plan, and a list of seventeen volunteers that will do the collecting, sorting, and delivering of the products. On Saturday the 21st, about forty households receive a box full of recuperated vegetables.

To fix the problem of reaching the people in need, the volunteers called with community centers, foodbanks and other social organizations. Although they are not curing the gap in the digital community, they are at least patching it through their mobilization on WhatsApp to start collective action in these times of isolation. WhatsApp as means of online gathering provided a space for incentivizing each other in these times of physical distances between people. This is not to say that in pre-digital eras such things would not have been possible. Paolo Gerbaudo, researching digital culture, points at the trap of fetishizing Social Media by attributing them almost mystical qualities. In his book ‘Tweets and the Streets’ (2012) he explains Social Media as creating a ‘’choreography of assembly (…) as a process of symbolic construction of public space’’ (Gerbaudo 2012: 5), emphasizing the role of its emotional appeal. What Gerbaudo tells us is that digital platforms are a communication technology that strongly influences our means of organization and mobilization, and therewith collective action. Similarly, anthropologists Heather Horst and Daniel Miller in their book Digital Anthropology (2012) argue that the digital space does not make us more mediated or more real, nor does it exist apart from physical or other life forms. Moreover, we should analyze the social interactions that emerge in the digital space not as new, but as a way of understanding contemporary cultures of collective action.

Bottom: Pamphlet to raise awareness and ask help; Top: Group of volunteers divided by task on Friday; Bottom right: Plan of action for Saturday, note that the ‘secret mission’-language is used to make it sound playful and should not be taken seriously

Philosophizing about post-Corona society

The excessive measures taken globally to restrain Coronavirus have put the world on hold. Not only does this cause alarming situations like the danger of an economic recession, it also forces the world into a moment of reflection. Journalists, politicians, scientists and citizens are debating what we should learn from this crisis, or how we can use the lockdown period to settle certain matters. For example, in the valuing of labor. The crisis forced the Dutch government to nominate ‘cruciale beroepen’ (crucial professions; see picture) in our society. It is embarrassing to realize that these professions – e.g. in care, food, education, transportation, and security – have been suffering from underpayment and overburdening for the past years. Historian and popular-science author Yuval Noah Harari is one of the people writing about the dangers and opportunities looming in the Coronacrisis. He claims that this crisis allows for ‘experiments’ that would otherwise have never been possible to take place. He talks about trust and solidarity as the solution to this global challenge and sees a ‘’major test of citizenship’’ ahead. As usual with crises, the first people to feel the blow are vulnerable groups. The Coronacrisis is not different. In Rotterdam foodbanks are struggling to supply the large group of people who are systematically dependent on others to be fed. I decide to share the podcast that made me aware of this issue in the Groenten Zonder Grenzen WhatsApp group. It should not have surprised me to learn that they have already been in touch with the foodbank that is mentioned in the podcast episode. For GZG the crisis has forced them to experiment with food deliveries to vulnerable people. A volunteer tells me that she hopes they will continue doing this after the crisis as well. Similarly, consumers have taken the effort to experiment with buying their groceries through Rechtstreex. Mara, who runs the distribution point I am volunteering at, believes that after the crisis some of them will remain regular customers. On a macro-scale, we have seen how a virus has physically isolated but socially unified people worldwide. With #FlattenTheCurve going viral, Social Media mediates in the mobilization of the global population to strive for the shared cause of combating the Coronavirus. Unintentionally, this has resulted in an experiment of global solidarity to unify against a humanitarian crisis. If this experiment succeeds, might it be the onset of a global community tackling other humanitarian crises as effectively, like that of poverty or climate change? 

'Crucial professions' according to the national government.
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