France sees army of volunteers step up during coronavirus crisis

France sees army of volunteers step up during coronavirus crisis
A group of volunteers hand out food to those in need in Ivry-sur-Seine, south east of Paris. Photo: The Local
In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, people all over France have stepped up to find new ways to help those who need it the most.

“How many people are you in the household?” Méhadée asked, her voice muffled by the mask covering her mouth.

She was registering yet another person who had come to pick up a food package in the southern Parisian banlieue of Ivry-sur-Seine on Wednesday. 

“We had 43 families just yesterday,” said Samba, the president of Solidaritess, the grassroots organisation  behind the initiative. Each time Méhadée signed up a new person, Samba let the team of volunteers inside know how many mouths they needed to account for when packing the groceries. 

“Six people, four children!” Samba shouted through the door. As few as possible were to be in contact with those who came to collect the aid to limit risks of contagion.

A big bag of groceries passed through (gloved) volunteer hands, packed to the brim with yoghurt, fruit, pasta, potatoes and other food items that had been carefully selected by the team inside. The person outside thanked Méhadée and Samba and left.

Coronavirus crisis management

Samba, a kinesiotherapist, and his team of seven volunteers usually do maraudes – the French term for delivering food to the homeless – all over Paris. Now, they have switched to full coronavirus crisis mode in their own local municipality.

Everyone in the team were wearing gloves and masks to avoid any risk of coronavirus contamination while they were working. Pieces of paper reading messages like “only one person distributes at the time!” were glued to the walls to remind them of the crucial health precautions that – right now – could be life saving.

Rules reminding everyone to take necessary health precautions hung on the walls, next to hand sanitising gel dispensers, at the Solidaritess headquarters in Ivry-sur-Seine.

France has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which by Wednesday had taken 1,100 lives and put more than 10,000 people in hospitals.

To stem the spread of the epidemic, the French government decided to shut down all non-essential commercial activities in the country and issue strict rules on all individual movement outside the home. When the government announced its plans, the mairie (town hall) – where Méhadée normally works – asked Solidaritess to step in to help. 

Solidaritess opened up their coronavirus food handout service the very first day of the lockdown, Tuesday, March 17th. 

They quickly realised that there was a big demand for their services in the area.

“As soon as we opened people started coming over,” Samba said.

Samba (left) and Mamadou (right) are cousins and volunteers at Solidaritess.

Solidaritess is far from the only voluntary association that had stepped up its efforts during the coronavirus epidemic. From small, local initiatives to larger, established ones, initiatives to help those in need during the lockdown have proliferated.

Some have focused on particularly vulnerable groups, like refugees or homeless living on the streets.

 

 

Others were initiatives aiming to help people through what for some could be lonely period of being confined to their flats. 

 

Several organisations have established telephone hotlines people can call if they need someone to talk to.

The English-language hotline SOS Helpline is also available to provide emotional support for English speakers – call  01 46 21 46 46.

One such hotline in Rennes, west in France, said they received over 100 calls over the weekend with people who struggled with adapting to new situation.

While some of the initiatives have been specifically created to respond to needs created by the coronavirus crisis, others come from existing organisations that have adapted pre-existing services.

Restos du coeur (Restaurants of the heart), a large, well-established organisation that usually provides food to the homeless, has also stepped in to help provide food to the country's health workers.

 

The government has called for young people to mobilise and offer their help to Restos du coeur and other organisations like Emmaüs and la Banque alimentaire (the Food bank), which all have been losing volunteers after elderly were told to stay inside as much as they can to avoid exposing themselves to potential coronavirus contamination.

'Help where help is needed'

On average, 30 families pick up a food bag from the Solidaritess headquarters every day. They keep open from 1pm-4pm, but Samba and the others also run errands for elderly and handicapped in the area.

“We try to help where help is needed,” Samba said. 

All anyone needed to do to receive a food bag was to show up. No justification was needed, the only requirement was that those receiving help signed up their names, address and phone number so that volunteers could verify that no one tried to misuse the service and come back twice.

“We had a guy that picked up a huge sack of food the other day only to come back the next day,” Samba said. “It doesn't work that way.”

Today's lot had come with help from the local Coccimarket food shop, which drove in a large delivery just before Solidaritess opened their doors at 1pm.

 

“Oh, she got strawberries!” Méhadée exclaimed in delight as she was packing the shopping bag of an old woman who was standing in line outside the window.

“Beautiful, right?” she asked The Local.

Samba said it was crucial that people help the most vulnerable in society right now.

“These are people who really need help,” Samba said.

“I really don't know what they would do if we weren't here.”


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