As Poland endures a coronavirus shutdown, many have taken it upon themselves to provide relief to those most affected by the pandemic, particularly the elderly, homeless and overworked medical staff.
“This is a time of quarantine of our entire society,” said health minister Łukasz Szumowski last week, announcing a country-wide shut down of cultural and education institutions. “This is a time we should spend at home in isolation, let’s take this seriously.”
That was followed by the closure of restaurants, cafes and bars, and the banning of public gatherings of more than 50 people. The government has encouraged the public to avoid any unnecessary contact and to maintain social distancing.Poles, it seems, are heeding that advice, with streets emptying of people.
— Geraint Rhys Music (@GeraintRhys1) March 16, 2020
Yet to help out those most strained by the government-mandated closures, Facebook communities providing free assistance have sprung up seemingly overnight.
Several groups offer help with pet care, childcare and homeschooling assistance or running errands. One such community, Widzialna Ręka (Visible Hand), was founded on 11 March when schools and universities were closed and has now reached over 80,000 members.
Group founder Filip Żulewski estimates that there are now over 150 spin-offs, with thousands more members grouped by specific towns and cities across the country. There is also one for Poland’s large Ukrainian community. Some are also using the I Help You app to offer voluntary support to the needy.
Żulewski set up the original Widzialna Ręka group to uplift his friends. “I never expected it to grow this much,” he told Notes from Poland. The name of the group references an organisation of youth and scouts from the 1950s and 60s, which provided anonymous assistance to the sick and elderly.
Blisko 20 tys. osób liczy pomocowa grupa "Widzialna ręka". Można też korzystać z apki https://t.co/Vu1Kcf17Dj która tworzy bazę wolontariuszy w Polsce #wroclaw #KoronawirusWPolsce pic.twitter.com/EQKD8Fpk21
— andrzej jozwik 🌏 (@andrzej_jozwik) March 18, 2020
Other Good Samaritans are taking more targeted action to help. One is Suresh Goyal, owner of an Indian restaurant in Warsaw, who has began dropping off meals for medical workers at hospitals, labouring overtime in the current crisis.
“They have no time to change out of their protective clothes. No time to feed themselves. This is something I could do,” Goyal told Notes from Poland. “It’s a social duty. I have been living in Poland 15 years, so this is something I feel I should do.”
For the past three years Goyal has already been providing meals to the capital’s homeless as part of the Smile Warsaw initiative. But that organisation has had to temporarily halt its efforts due to the government’s restrictions on mass events.
Meanwhile, a public fundraiser has been launched under the hashtag #PosiłekDlaLekarza (#MealForADoctor) in which members of the public can donate towards the cost of ordering food deliveries for medics who are on the front line of the coronavirus crisis. Within a few days it has raised over 460,000 zloty (€102,000).
On Sunday, a receipt from a kebab bar in the small town of Radzymin that had charged paramedics a symbolic 1 grosz (the equivalent of one fifth of a euro cent) for every item they ordered was widely shared on social media.
Staff at the restaurant (which can offer only takeaway services due to the government’s restrictions) had written a note of thanks to the parademics for “saving our lives from coronavirus”. The bar is run by Ghani, an Iraqi who has lived in Poland for years, telling Gazeta Wyborcza he “fell in love with the country”.
9 groszy czyli symboliczny grosz za każde danie i napój skasował od ekipy ratowników bar Relax w Radzyminie. "Ratujcie nasze życie od koronawirus. Pozdrawiam Król Alibaba" – napisał na rachunku słynny właściciel lokalu. https://t.co/tmKlXUt9k7
— Jarosław Kurski (@JaroslawKurski) March 16, 2020
Other collections have also been held to raise money towards tackling shortages in hospitals, where medical staff have warned of a lack of protective clothing and other equipment necessary to tackle the growing number of coronavirus cases.
Wejherowo Hospital in northern Poland, one of 19 across the country designated to receive coronavirus patients, has reported a “critical lack” of supplies. In response, a local effort has been launched to raise money for the purchase of such essential goods through an online donations page.
The Provincial Specialist Hospital in Częstochowa, though it still has not had its first confirmed case of coronavirus yet, appealed through social media for items that will be necessary to deal with an outbreak. The public were asked to donate masks, gloves, disinfectants and other equipment at a local church.
Efforts have also been made to ensure that support for the homeless continues during the pandemic. A government-funded Mobile Counselling Point (MPP) operates out of a designated city bus to provide free transport for Warsaw’s estimated 3,000 homeless people to shelters over winter, along with hot drinks, warm clothes, and access to counselling services.
Following the new restrictions on public gatherings, the bus has changed its focus to delivering necessary goods – circumventing the ban by staying on the move and avoiding sustained contact between infected and healthy people.
Meanwhile, many Poles have volunteered to help the elderly people, who are most at risk from the virus. Reports of the young offering to assist with daily errands such as shopping have flooded social media.
Local municipalities have also sought to martial the goodwill of neighbours, with many – such as Chełm, a city in eastern Poland where nearly one third of the population is over 60 – setting up special volunteer services and helplines for anyone needing assistance.
“People are coming together, reaching out and offering friendship,” remarked Andy Eddles, the founder of Smile Warsaw. With his group currently unable to hold its usual gatherings to feed and clothe the homeless, they have instead been assisting MPP with its deliveries.
Main image credit: Suresh Goyal
Percy Metcalfe is an American Fulbright student located in Warsaw for the academic year of 2019/20. He is carrying out a research project on the performance of national identity in the Polish-U.S. bilateral relationship at the University of Warsaw while also working part time for Notes from Poland.