The Visible Hand of empathy: social mobilisation on Facebook against the negative effects of the lockdown in Poland

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Author: Magdalena H. Góralska, a digital anthropologist from Poland, a researcher at the Kozminski University, and a student at the University of Warsaw. She studies health communication across digital platforms since 2016 using ethnographic research methods. You can contact Magdalena at maniagoralska@gmail.com.

Fieldwork: a grassroots initiative called the ‘Visible Hand’ that uses Facebook groups set for various cities across the country to organize help for those affected by the negative effects of the lockdown in Poland.

Methodology: Participant observation in public groups. Contrary to the previous insight I have authored, this is a general inquiry – I share preliminary thoughts based on short term observations, that last for a little over a month.

The Visible Hand

It was early afternoon and I was shopping at Hala Mirowska, a popular open-air bazaar in Warsaw,  the oldest operating market in the city. It works like in the old days, hence it is popular among the elderly consumers, who appreciate a different customer approach that supermarkets have to offer. Also, the bazaar undoubtedly has the best quality-to-price ratio in this part of the city.

I was wondering what eggs to choose from over a dozen different kinds, exhibited in carefully constructed egg pyramids when I noticed an elderly customer in the neighbouring stall.

It was well past twelve, which marks the end of the two-hour widow when only people 65 or over are allowed to shop (I was once bluntly reminded of it: I had absentmindedly wandered into a deserted shop at 10 am, without even a thought about why it is so empty crossing my mind. I picked up what I needed, but wasn’t served by the cashier). The government introduced this restriction to make the elderly feel safer if they need to go out to shop, the assumption being that the virus is mostly spread by the more mobile and healthier/symptom-free part of the population. While there is no way to say whether this really was a justified choice, given that germs and viruses can stick to surfaces for hours, if not days, it was certainly the right choice as far as politics are concerned. The ruling Law and Justice party is  conservative, and popularly perceived as relying on elderly and retired citizens as its voter base.

Yet, it was past noon, and an elderly gentleman was shopping, wide-smiled and mask-free. But he wasn’t alone – he was seated in a wheelchair pushed by an elegant young man, who didn’t seem to be his relative. He was clearly abashed, addressing the gentleman using the most respectful and formal terms while helping him to get some canned fish from the fish vendor. I watched them for a good minute or two, and the young man noticed me looking their way. He smiled and carried on with the shopping, gentle turning towards the vegetable part.

I stood in line to buy the eggs, wondering what was going on with the two. The elderly man, clearly not happy about the lockdown. The young man, awkward but happy to be of use. And then it came to me – it must have been the famous Visible Hand!

Organising empathy through social media

The mysterious-sounding Visible Hand was at first a private group set up by friends in order to create an easy way to share worries and ask for help in the pandemic. By the 20th of March, just a week from after being set up (!), the group members’ headcount reached nearly 90 000. It was around that time that the Polish government ordered a country-wide lockdown. The initiative, not even local at the beginning, turned into a social movement in less than a fortnight, with over 150 separate groups responsible for various districts of the capital and other cities in Poland and abroad. The name of the movement – Widzialna Ręka – derives from another social initiative from the communist era called the Invisible Hand, where people would anonymously help strangers across the country. This time, any required help would have to be received directly, making anonymity unwelcome, and fairly impossible with Facebook features supporting the ‘authenticity’ in personal user profiles.

The Visible Hand groups serve today as a contact point, connecting those who wish to help to those who need it, stranger to stranger. The Hand tries to address a whole range of needs:

  • help with everyday chores the elderly are unable to do, such as shopping or dog walking;
  • child-related needs, such as babysitting (as schools and kindergartens are shut) or providing clothes, toys, or computers for the now-online school classes;
  • emotional needs addressed with art, language, yoga or streaming of people’s forest walks (!);
  • psychological needs, addressed by offering free-of-charge therapy sessions, or offers “just to talk”;
  • employment-related needs – some take up cleaning to support jobless cleaning staff, even though they have never used cleaners before, others order food from restaurants, even though they prefer to cook at home, to support struggling food businesses;
  • legal needs, with lawyers helping solve issues related to with unjust landlords or employment free of charge;
  • accommodation-related needs –  this relates to the fact that there are still emergencies when someone needs to stay overnight, for example, when bringing family members to a state hospital for an operation to another city, and all hotels are shut, but there is no family or friends to offer a couch to sleep on.

 Some ethnographic insights

Here are a few interesting findings about the initiative:

  • The Visible Hand movement addresses various forms of vulnerability, helping those who are at risk from the virus itself, such as medical personnel, the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, but also those affected by the pandemic restrictions – single parents, parents with small children who cannot work from home, service industry workers – hairdressers, cleaners, restaurant workers, those whose pay is commission-based and who will suffer due to the economic slowdown.
  • Many solutions to problems posted in groups come from znajomości – a set of personal connections that allow to solve things through informal networks, being to an extent a Polish version of a favoured system.
  • The original Facebook group is private, but other groups in the movement are usually public.
  • When the group had fewer members, up to a couple of thousand, it was easier to moderate discussions, and it used community brainpower to solve various problems brought to the group. When the group reached 100 000 members it became more dysfunctional, and the quality of responses dropped, according to the group’s founder.
  • Though the original Widzialna Ręka group became oversized, various subgroups were created in new localities – starting from particular districts of the capital city, Warsaw, to other cities across the country, to places abroad – wherever Polish diaspora exists, reaching over 150 and counting. They are all mapped out here.
  • The Visible Hand groups abroad – in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, or the UK – set up by the numerous Polish diasporas aren’t only for Polish people.
  • There are separate Visible Hand groups set up for foreigners – either those who live in Poland or are stuck here due to the borders being closed, and the Ukrainian community, the largest minority in the country.
  • Over time, group members have compiled safe ways of helping others, such as, for example, how to approach the elderly without posing a risk, or how to safely walk a dog of a friend who is in quarantine, without being exposed to risk yourself. Discussions in such groups created a growing repository of brainstormed, experience-based, and thought-through practices, that is still expanding. Such know-how is shared outside of the group, making the movement more impactful in an immeasurable way.
  • To help growing numbers of precarious workers being left without jobs and financially insecure people, dedicated Facebook groups with job ads emerged – the Visible Hand for those looking for a job or offering jobs; the Crisis Commission Market group; the Rubbish Jobs Tie-up group.
  • In an interview given to the press, the group’s funder, engineer Filip Żulewski, says it must have been the need to feel safe and the craving for human contact in isolation that made the original group, and the initiative, so popular. He hopes that at least some of those groups will keep up the good work when the pandemic is over since they are certainly needed – and the smaller they are the less likely it is that someone will “uberize” the voluntary energy, so the invisible hand of the market won’t take it over and capitalise on it. The whole interview, in Polish, can be found here.

There are downsides and malfunctions too:

  • The responsibility for malfunctions, misuses or failure to provide promised help is blurred due to the grassroots nature of the group and lack of clear structure. There is no clear way to solve problems and hear complaints. With posts being moderated before they published, this can pose challenges to the functioning of the movement.
  • An example: one such post, authored by a volunteer, was aimed at warning the community how to counter some of the downsides of the movement. One of the dog-walking coordinators didn’t tell a volunteer dog walker that a quarantined family he had been helping had been in contact with a person who had COVID-19 but who was asymptomatic. The family casually mentioned the fact to the volunteer after days of dog walking, and in that time he was in contact with his own relatives, a few of whom are in the high-risk group. In the post, he was wondering what to do, and whether to press charges against the irresponsible coordinator who seemingly knew from the very beginning the family was actually sick. An interesting part of the story is that the family didn’t seem particularly strict on hygiene, wearing masks irregularly when passing the dog into his care, and later argued that the State Sanitary Inspectorate (pol. sanepid) told them they are not infectious unless they have symptoms, which seems to be a miscommunication, to say the least.
  • There is a tendency that due to a high number of calls for help, especially those which are posted on the behalf of families and elderly in need, some verification measures were introduced. Due to a grassroots nature of the movement, there is no unified way of verifying those calls, so group members have to establish their own criteria for building trust. Usually, direct contact through private FB messages or calls is the way they do so, trying to figure out from the way someone writes or talks, whether it is a legitimate case. In some local groups in Poland the neediest, poorest families, who benefit from the state support, can be and often are first verified in the local Social Welfare Centre.

To summarise: a simple act of solidarity amongst friends skyrocketed in less than a week into a nation-wide solidarity movement to help the most vulnerable. The Visible Hand groups serve as a growing repository of various bottom-up, grassroots resistance methods that can help mitigate the negative effects of the lockdown restrictions.

Side notes

My primary research interest lies in a different area, and I am looking forward to reading the results of a study that properly researches this initiative. Facebook makes up much of Poland’s public sphere, so it isn’t surprising that many charity initiatives successfully manage to use social media to promote their actions and raise funds. However, I wonder, would it be as popular, if organised by the government, whether or not it would still use social media, rather than a dedicated website, for example? How would such an initiative develop if there would be no social media? And, why are there people wondering whether it should be the government’s role to orchestrate such a widespread support movement?

Funding acknowledgement: my work is funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland, via a pre-doctoral funding scheme ‘Diamond Grant’, ed. 2016 (grant MNiSW nr 0252/DIA/2016/45, nr OK – 697).