As COVID-19 cases rise, so does mutual aid effort launched at UC Berkeley

In San Francisco, William Oberst receives a bag of masks made by the Common Humanity Collective during a Dec. 7 PPE giveaway by Code Tenderloin, a nonprofit group. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small, video by Clare Major and Roxanne Makasdjian)

Eight months after a Ph.D. student and a research assistant turned a UC Berkeley lab into a makeshift hand sanitizer factory, soon producing nearly 500 gallons a week for free distribution to Bay Area residents in need, the project has grown into a formidable mutual aid organization in California during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s already dispatched enough sanitizer for more than 120,000 people and nearly 20,000 high-grade face masks of its own design, including to Central Valley farmworkers, Louisiana hurricane victims and the Navajo Nation in Arizona and Utah.

Once under the radar and defying a name, the operation now calls itself the Common Humanity Collective, fitting for the cooperative enterprise it’s become. A contingent of campus volunteers has been joined, at one point or another, by more than 200 others in the Bay Area — from elementary school youth building masks with their Dublin 4-H Club to members of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America holding mask-making events beside Oakland’s Lake Merritt and at Bushrod and Empowerment parks.

“It’s people taking responsibility for taking care of people,” said Chris Gee, a Berkeley Ph.D. recipient in plant and microbial biology who introduced mask-making to the collective last summer. After much research, he designed a no-sew mask made of inexpensive shop towels and nanofiber filters that is 85% efficient and takes five minutes or less to make.

A close-up photo of Abrar Abidi, a Ph.D. student at Berkeley helping to lead the Common Humanity Collective, an effort to provide PPE during the pandemic to those who can't afford it.
Ph.D. candidate Abrar Abidi said if it weren’t for the “radical dimension” within members of the campus community, historically, and “a certain madness in their souls,” this growing grassroots effort during the pandemic wouldn’t have happened. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

It was last March that Abrar Abidi, a third-year Berkeley Ph.D. student in molecular and cell biology, launched the grassroots effort with his Berkeley colleague, Yvonne Hao, who is now in medical school. At first, they produced only hand sanitizer, working “lightning-speed” 19-to-20-hour days, he said, to fill a critical shortage of it at homeless shelters, jails, low-income housing communities and nursing homes in the East Bay and San Francisco.

Hand sanitizer is more plentiful today, said Abidi, “but there are new, disturbing barriers in play. One of them is that the economy has changed a lot. Many people who may have still had jobs and were able to pay the rent and afford groceries in March can’t do that now. Lines outside of food banks have grown enormously, and infection rates are far more widespread than ever before.

“So, we’ve had a rule: to try and fulfill every single request made to us, regardless of circumstance or distance or any other condition. We don’t want anyone to have to choose between paying for food or rent and buying reliable PPE (personal protective equipment) that could save their, and other people’s, lives.” Requests for PPE can be made through the collective’s website.

This winter, with coronavirus cases and death tolls spiking in California, volunteers are cranking out a combined 120 gallons of hand sanitizer a week, for a fraction of its market price, in two Berkeley labs — at the Valley Life Sciences Building and the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences. Meanwhile, a storeroom in Koshland Hall is stocked with enough fabric and filters to reach the collective’s goal of building 12,000 new masks in the next few months.

Dozens of people in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood line up for free food, as well as PPE from the Common Humanity Collective, at a Code Tenderloin event.
At the giveaway in San Francisco run by Code Tenderloin, dozens of people lined up near the corner of Turk and Jones streets for free food, along with PPE from the Common Humanity Collective. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

“We’ve invested in this pipeline we’ve created, and we have the ability to do this,” said Gee, who just began a postdoctoral job in Emeryville but, like Abidi, gives his spare time to the endeavor. “Literally, people could die of COVID-19. That’s our motivation.”

One of the collective’s many fans is San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, who said he’s proud of these “incredible activists who created a network of mutual aid and supplemented city actions at a time when people needed it most. … I have no doubt that their tireless efforts saved lives in our community.”

Today, that network, which Abidi calls “an improbable crew,” is battling what President-elect Joe Biden has warned could be “a dark winter” by ramping up its mask-making capacity, filling thousands of 6-ounce bottles with hand sanitizer and delivering the supplies. Since last spring, more than 200 organizations, including food banks, public housing developments, domestic violence sanctuaries and San Francisco’s entire fleet of MUNI bus drivers, have received the PPE, often recurrently.

“A lot of people have gone from wanting to do something to actually doing something,” said June Lin-Arlow, an organizer with the collective who runs its distribution efforts in San Francisco, working with Episcopal Community Services, Homeless Youth Alliance, San Francisco Night Ministry, Harm Reduction Therapy Center, Mission Food Hub and many other homeless outreach groups.

“There is a desire to get involved in action that can impact people directly,” she said, “and the organizations the collective helps are the ones with the least amount of capital.”

A close-up photo of postdoctoral fellow Chris Gee, who brought mask-making to the Common Humanity Collective
Chris Gee, who brought mask-making to the Common Humanity Collective last summer, said many of those volunteering to make masks, like himself, “don’t have a history of volunteering. But this has been a crisis of unprecedented severity, and a massive disruption to normal life that has enabled a lot of people to reconsider how they spend their time and their civic engagement.” (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Mask-making joins the collective

When the pandemic first hit, Gee was a Ph.D. student experiencing housing instability and experimenting with making affordable face masks for himself and his friends. He also enjoyed the challenge. Being physically shut out of the lab where he was doing his doctoral work, he said, “I had the ability and time to pull together information from the Internet to find the best mask designs and test ways to make them in a sustainable, scalable way.”

Yet, his sewing skills were limited; it took him 30 minutes to an hour to make just one. “I wanted to find something we could afford to make, relatively quickly,” he said. “But there wasn’t a commercial option.”

He recruited a crew of 20 colleagues from Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology to try making the masks. “A lot of what I did was organizational work, directing a cottage industry,” said Gee. “They’d pick up kits from me and bring back finished masks. Early on, I made about 200 masks total, so the switch to getting 200 every few days was major.”

Once local mask mandates went into effect, Gee said he focused on homeless people and others “who couldn’t even go inside a lot of buildings because they didn’t have masks.” Last summer, looking to collaborate, he read about Abidi and Hao’s operation in a Bay Area news story. The resulting partnership also meant Gee would have funds to continue to experiment with his mask design.

Two women make face masks for people in need at a table set up outside of Koshland Hall on Dec. 6.
Elaine Qian (left), the Common Humanity Collective’s PPE kit coordinator and social media director, and Sruthi Sudarsan, a high school student from Dublin, build masks outside Berkeley’s Koshland Hall on Dec. 6. Sudarsan, 15, is president of the Dublin 4-H Club, which has made more than 2,600 masks for the collective. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

With help from Berkeley faculty member Robert Tjian, Abidi’s co-adviser, the collective operates, in part, through a significant donation from the Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation, which has funded many research projects at Berkeley. The collective also has a GoFundMe campaign and, early on, received support from the discretionary funds of several professors, including Tjian.

Gee went on to discover Filti, a business in Kansas City that manufactures HVAC filters called Filti and that also had begun mask-making. He purchased some Filti as a filler for his masks and then sent some prototypes to Phillip Clapp, a researcher at the International Society for Aerosols in Medicine at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“He tested them,” said Gee, “and the winner was a version that blocked 85% of aerosol particles, cost 60 cents in materials and could be made in 5 minutes. That’s the one we’re mainly producing now.” Gee said the Filti company “advertises its material as able to block 95% of submicron aerosols, but Clapp’s test accounted for leaks where the mask seals around a person’s face, which likely explains the discrepancy.”

The collective’s masks, “by and large, are a vast improvement over cloth-based masks,” said Abidi. “We’re trying to infiltrate especially hard-hit areas where people may still be wearing things like bandanas — which is like wearing nothing — and replace them, upgrade them. The disease is spreading at an enormous rate right now. Just wearing anything, especially in dense urban areas, isn’t going to cut it.”

A man is handed PPE at a giveaway in San Francisco's Tenderloin neigborhood.
The Common Humanity Collective’s high-grade masks, distributed here in San Francisco, are “a vast improvement over cloth-based masks,” said Abrar Abidi, adding that the group is trying to provide vulnerable populations with more protective coverings. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

An ‘insatiable’ need for PPE

Masks currently are the collective’s main focus, “given that droplet transmission of the virus is more likely than contact transmission,” said Abidi. And demand for them, added Gee, “is insatiable.”

“We don’t get to store them too long, because there is always a need in the Tenderloin. We are overwhelmed with homelessness,” admitted Elgin Rose, Code Tenderloin’s program manager. “The cleanliness and sanitation of the masks are compromised pretty fast down here.”

But hand sanitizer — it’s mixed at two Berkeley sites by volunteers from multiple campus labs — remains critical to groups serving those who can’t afford it, especially since San Francisco “is locking down again,” said Rose. He thanked the collective for “joining forces with us to retool our community members with quality supplies for the homeless ‘safe sleeping site’ that we help facilitate.”

Yi Liu inspects a face mask made by members of the Common Humanity Collective.
Yi Liu, a lab manager at Berkeley who handles supply inventory for the collective’s mask team, inspects a finished mask before packing up a box loaded with PPE to be sent to Utah Diné Bikéyah. The Indigenous-led nonprofit in Utah, which works with tribes at Bear Ears National Monument, requested a shipment of hand sanitizer and masks. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Utah Diné Bikéyah, an Indigenous-led nonprofit group that works with tribes at Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument, also relies on the collective’s sanitizer and masks. Angelo Baca, cultural resources coordinator of this Native American land conservation organization, said that Indigenous communities, such as the Navajo Nation, “have been among the hardest hit in the country and in the world” by the coronavirus pandemic.

Face masks and hand sanitizer are resources, “including access to water, that are difficult to come by here in these rural and remote areas, so everything helps,” Baca said, adding his appreciation for the collective, which also has shipped supplies to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, for “aiding in the safety, health and wellness of Indigenous communities, elders and youth in this challenging time.”

On a recent Sunday, Sruthi Sudarsan, a high school sophomore at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and president of Dublin’s 4-H Club, brought to campus about 600 completed masks made by the club, which involves youth from 35 families. They were sent the next day to Utah Diné Bikéyah.

“It’s a good experience, especially for the younger members, to know we’re helping out with the pandemic, as this is really a crazy time. And they were happy to help,” she said, adding that her 4-H club has completed 2,600 masks so far.

Sheet of white filtration cloth and metal nose bridge strips lie on a table at a student co-op where residents will assemble face masks.
Sheets of filtration cloth with metal nose bridge strips are laid out before being assembled into face masks at Hillegass Parker House, a co-op in Berkeley where residents are building masks with materials from the Common Humanity Collective. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Practice of mutual aid drives the work

Abidi said a key reason he chose Berkeley for graduate school was that “it’s a place that attracts people who have some radical dimension to their spirit, a certain madness in their soul, and there’s a long history of that here,” he said. “I personally don’t think that this — one of the largest COVID-19 mutual aid efforts in the Bay Area, and possibly the state — could have happened anywhere but here.”

Tjian, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, agreed. “I’ve never seen anything even close to this, but I’m not surprised,” he said. “Berkeley tends to attract people with community spirit. The most positive thing that’s come out of COVID-19, for me, was seeing Abrar and Yvonne and the bunch of them take ownership of this project.”

But Abidi and Gee emphasized that the ancient practice of mutual aid — different from community service, or charity — is the heart of the collective’s success. Rather than a top-down, paternalistic response to a crisis, it’s an act of solidarity against a common struggle, with communities organizing to help each other out, to build sustained networks among neighbors and to advocate for changing unfavorable political conditions.

Residents of Hillegass Parker House, a student co-op in Berkelely, sit at their dining room table and assemble face masks. A Christmas tree is in the background.
A mask-building session is held in the living room of Hillegass Parker House, a Berkeley co-op, on Dec. 4. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Forming the Common Humanity Collective also was a way to give everyday people “some agency amid the pandemic, which otherwise might seem too big for any one person alone to fight against,” said Gee. “Few people can develop vaccines or work on the front lines, but stapling together a batch of masks is a way the rest of us can contribute.”

One such volunteer is Berkeley sociology professor Cihan Tugal, a self-described mask-making “foot soldier” who teaches others to build masks at local events held by the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“I’m a big supporter of mutual aid, in general. The idea of volunteering your time,” he said. “The cost of these materials (to make masks) and the time involved in putting them together are so much less than (what) masks cost on the market, and they appear to be more protective.

“In an ideal society, this should be the public health institutions’ burden. But now, citizens need to step in and take up part of the slack, both as a way of helping people and to spread the message that everyone deserves care.”

A close-up of someone folding a face mask made for low-income people through the Common Humanity Collective.
On Dec. 5 in Oakland’s Empowerment Park, members of the Green New Deal Committee of the East Bay chapter of Democratic Socialists of America assembled hundreds of masks using the design created by the Common Humanity Collective. (Photo by Eric Ruud)

Max Morrison, a 2016 Berkeley graduate in energy engineering and a DSA member, leads the Green New Deal Committee of East Bay DSA; it’s made about 750 masks, so far, with materials from the collective. Earlier this month, the committee held a mask-making session in an Oakland park that attracted the attention of and help from some passersby.

“People power’s going to get us through this most difficult of times,” said Morrison. “It’s where the strength is.”

Joe Chellew, a DSA member who works for a local biotech company, is managing the volunteers who run the collective’s hand sanitizer bottling and distribution operation in the East Bay. About 120 of the more than 200 organizations that receive the collective’s PPE are located there.

“Most of us only have a few hours to spare every week,” he said, “but if we can save lives, who are we to say no?”