Lessons from European Austerity Facilitate Grassroots Collective Responses amid COVID-19

Bayla Ostrach and Megan A. Carney

Neighborhood-level social solidarity efforts that emerged following the 2008 global financial crisis and attendant austerity measures in Sicily and Catalunya[i] continue in response to local impacts of COVID-19. These efforts have been especially pronounced in working-class and migrant neighborhoods where we conduct ongoing fieldwork — restrictions on travel related to the pandemic notwithstanding.[ii] Grassroots mutual aid and support are not organized only as charitable projects to benefit neighbors, including migrants, but perhaps more importantly, reflect longstanding collective and neighborhood-wide engagement.

Austerity measures were the primary means by which European governments responded to the 2008 global recession, precipitating dramatic reductions to spending on healthcare, education and social services. In many affected countries, including Italy and Spain, austerity disproportionately reduced migrants’ access to national health systems while also weakening the safety net and, in some cases, stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. The neighboring regions where we have ethnographic research projects are in Europe’s Southern periphery; this area has been disproportionately affected by austerity measures and has long grappled with structural marginalization within Europe. This marginalization intersects in profound ways with Catalunya and Sicily‘s struggles for autonomy and self-determination. It also appears to inform attitudes toward economic struggles that motivate migration; our fieldwork documents that Catalans and Sicilians display a more welcoming attitude toward migrants than do Spaniards and Italians more broadly.

Solidarity initiatives with migrants that first surfaced amid the 2008 recession and ensuing climate of austerity have continued, and may prove increasingly important in COVID-19 relief and recovery efforts in both Italy and Spain. These initiatives and social formations, stemming from an ethos of social solidarity among citizens and noncitizens, challenge the ideology of neoliberal globalization as they also serve as buffers against social, political and economic disturbances. They provide mutual aid and, in many instances, focus on both material and affective wellbeing. Notably, such projects are also flexible. Locally grounded organizers nimbly adapt to emerging needs at the neighborhood level in ways not necessarily addressed by municipal or state responses and aid efforts. The gaps these local responses target include furlough payments or pandemic relief not otherwise available to the large numbers of informal sector workers.

Working-class and long-time migrant neighborhoods have prominently featured migrant welcome centers, even prior to the 2008 global financial crisis. These centers offer language classes, “orientation” to local bureaucracies, assistance with paperwork and housing, vocational training opportunities and social work and advocacy for migrant youth, particularly refugees and asylum-seekers.

In Sicily, the tragedy of the pandemic and its human and social costs has intersected with the ceaseless tragedy of migrant deaths at sea. Public displays of mourning became important discursive spaces to express solidarity between citizens and noncitizens. In addition to symbolic and indirect gestures of social solidarity, citizens and noncitizens have offered material solidarity in the form of housing placements for migrant youth and adults within familial contexts. These serve as alternatives to institutional and state-sponsored reception centers that closed amid draconian government measures prohibiting these centers from continuing operations, as well as thriving cooperatives that engage the principles of solidarity economies and facilitate practices of mutual aid among local residents in municipalities such as Palermo and Agrigento. In an effort to redistribute resources, promote inclusion and express material solidarity, some local businesses are allowing clientele to pay on a sliding scale; those who can pay more are able to cover the expenses of those facing especially difficult economic circumstances. In addition, grassroots coalitions that for several years provided space for arts-based healing have adapted to conditions of the pandemic to connect vulnerable groups through virtual platforms. While engaged in political activism, these same groups have adopted the framework of “Black Lives Matter” as they call for recognizing human rights in the Mediterranean amid a spike in anti-immigrant and race-based violence.


At a recent street protest in Palermo, demonstrators demanded justice for Willy Monteiro Duarte, a 21-year Black man beaten to death by four white Italian men. (photo credit: CarovaneMigranti public Facebook page).

In Catalunya, neighborhood-based forms of interwoven cultural and political expression, most notably the Casteller activities,[i] are explicitly welcoming to migrants and represent a form of inclusive nationalism and solidarity. As the 2008 global recession triggered mass unemployment and evictions, activists in the same neighborhoods mobilized in efforts to help neighbors resist mortgage foreclosures. They continued to do so while expanding their actions to demand an end to real estate speculation and the displacement of families from flats in the neighborhoods now used as tourist vacation rentals, for the profit of absentee owners. In late 2017 a Spanish government coup resulted in a forcible political occupation of Catalunya after Spanish police violently interfered in a self-determination vote. During this time, longstanding neighborhood solidarity committees organized defense and refuge teams to provide respite and medic stations in local school and community center buildings. They also dispatched residents to protect elderly and more vulnerable neighbors who were attempting to vote at local polling places where police beat many voters as Spanish tanks rolled through the streets outside.

Most recently, during COVID-19 confinements the same neighborhood committees and mutual aid groups, including Castellers and siciliani, organized weekly collections and distributions of donated non-perishable foods, diapers, toiletries, school supplies and other necessities for those losing income due to confinement orders and increasing unemployment. As in earlier social solidarity responses to austerity measures, this pandemic assistance was as available to migrants as anyone else, but did not single out migrants or asylum-seekers as different from other neighbors


Castellers organized collections and donations for distribution in their Barcelona neighborhood. (photo credit: Castellers de Poble Sec public Facebook page).


A volunteer in Italy packs food donations for distribution (photo credit: Moltivolti public Facebook page).

The pandemic wore on through the summer, with restrictions eased as infection rates dropped. In the fall of 2020 cases rose again, with Southern European governments reinstating many restrictions or establishing new ones. Throughout, Castellers and siciliani, creatively responded with ever-evolving mutual aid and social solidarity events and services. In late July, for example, as cases began to increase again in Catalunya, a mutual support network formed by multiple neighborhood organizations in one historically migrant and working-class neighborhood responded to recommended (but not required) pandemic confinement by circulating a hotline for anyone who might benefit from assistance with having groceries delivered, dog-walking or trash removal.


Barcelona neighborhood mutual support network hotline announcement circulated late July 2020 (credit: Castellers de Poble Sec public Facebook page).

When a new school year was set to begin after many months of potential pandemic-related income loss for parents, Castellers in the same neighborhood worked with a broad coalition of mutual aid organizations to collect, organize and distribute nearly 250 school supply kits.


Volunteers in the Poble Sec neighborhood of Barcelona (Catalunya) prepare donated school supplies for packaging and distribution (photo credit: Castellers de Poble Sec public Facebook page).

Forms of social solidarity and support were not just material, however. They were also intended to boost morale. On the holiday of the patron saint of Barcelona in early September, when large groups of musicians traditionally serenade the neighborhood early in the morning, musicians who make up part of every Casteller group instead creatively offered separate small mini-concerts on balconies and rooftops – in distanced gatherings of just a few players. Rather than foregoing an important local tradition likely to raise people’s spirits; especially when the usual accompanying festival had to be cancelled, musicians from one of the most widely recognized neighborhood collectives found a way to safely maintain the tradition.

As winter holidays neared, Castellers developed carefully coordinated plans for outdoor, distanced, staggered and smaller-group attendance at some usual end-of-year gatherings and shared meals. This included inviting people to come by with Tupperware and take food home, rather than the usual tradition of eating together as a large group in the shared Casteller social and practice space now largely repurposed as a collection and organization space for donated food and goods.


Casteller musicians serenade their neighborhood from the rooftop early on Mercé, the holiday of the patron saint of Barcelona in 2020 (photo credit: Castellers de Poble Sec public Facebook page).

A common thread runs through all the specific examples of social solidarity and mutual aid as pandemic responses in Sicily and Catalunya. These can be traced back to similar responses to Euro-zone austerity measures in the wake of the global recession. The resulting disproportionate structural marginalization of particular European regions necessitated and rewarded creative responses. It also fueled ongoing self-determination movements, movements that at times have differentiated themselves from other national projects precisely by insisting on the inclusion of migrants. Strategies gleaned from the economic difficulties of the immediate post-recession period preceded and facilitated residents’ collective responses to the pandemic. The continuity of social solidarity-minded, neighborhood-level approaches to ensuring local support – for citizens and migrants alike – offers lessons for how other affected communities might collectively navigate these times to the benefit of the most vulnerable, rather than at their expense. Social solidarity responses also demonstrate the power of community resistance to a range of structural forces, be they austerity, geopolitical marginalization, anti-immigrant sentiment  or a pandemic, the effects of which are worsened when social infrastructure is weakened by austerity.


[i] As described in a 2018 Anthropology Now article, Catalunya is an autonomous region considered by the Spanish government as part of Spain. However the governance relationship between Catalunya and the country that occupies it since invoking Article 155 in late 2017, is increasingly contested. Like many who live there, the residents of Catalunya with whom the fieldwork described in this article was conducted do not consider Catalunya part of Spain.

[ii]During and despite pandemic-related travel restrictions, we maintain connections to fieldsite communities and engage in virtual ‘fieldwork’ and observations to the extent possible. This consists of a combination of monitoring local and regional news sources and social media accounts relevant to the sites; and regular communication with key informants (email, direct messaging).

[iii] Casteller(s) refers to activities, recognized by UNESCO as a Cultural Heritage of Humanity, in which intergenerational, gender-diverse, multi-ethnic collectives meet regularly in Catalan villages and neighborhoods to build human castles or towers.



Bayla Ostrach is appointed in Family Medicine and Medical Anthropology at Boston University School of Medicine. They are the author of Health Policy in a Time of Crisis: Abortion, Austerity, and Access (2017) based on fieldwork in Catalunya and since 2016 conduct ongoing fieldwork with Castellers.

Megan A. Carney is a sociocultural and medical anthropologist at the University of Arizona. She is the author of two books, The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders (2015) and Island of Hope: Migration and Solidarity in the Mediterranean (forthcoming).

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