Meet a young Latvian who has inspired a team to do something really positive during the Covid-19 crisis. Helping vulnerable people with their shopping has uncovered a treasure trove of energy which can hopefully find more outlets to make life better.

Covid volunteer leader Latvia

Retail therapy for the nation

As countries around the world continue battling Covid-19, Latvia seems like an island of tranquillity amidst the storm. With the lowest infection rate in Europe, school is underway, businesses are running without restrictions, and people mingle in bars and restaurants with barely a mask in sight.

The jury is still out on whether this happy situation is due to luck or wise policies. But after a history riddled with crises and tragedies, Latvians seem to be doing something right during this pandemic.

One of the brightest aspects has been the reaction of Latvian civil society to helping the most vulnerable. Leading the way has been 30-year-old Riga tech entrepreneur Mārtiņš Zeps, co-founder and director of “Paliec mājās” (Stay at Home), a band of volunteers who went grocery shopping for housebound elderly and sick people during the lockdown.

And the benefits of this altruistic effort go far beyond getting meals on tables.

Covid volunteer Latvia

Shopping for granny

“Paliec mājās” is a case study in rapidly putting theory into practice. Back in March, Mārtiņš was taking part in a hackathon, and his team decided to tackle an issue that was then raising its alarming head in the real world – imminent lockdown. They quickly found state and corporate partners for their home deliveries scheme and attracted almost 1,000 volunteers.

People needing help shopping phoned to a call centre, their grocery lists were shared online, and potential helpers contacted the clients directly to make arrangements. The delivery was free, with payment for the groceries was done by bank transfer or cash after delivery.

As a Riga resident, I wanted to do something useful during the crisis rather than just sitting at home, so I started volunteering for “Paliec mājās.” So I ended up shopping for about a dozen elderly and disabled people, discovering previously unexplored corners of the city and getting a lot of satisfaction from doing something that was clearly needed.

Mārtiņš started volunteering while studying in the UK. Despite stereotypes about a lack of community spirit in post-Soviet states, he thinks this experience emphatically disproves that theory.

Helping the neighbours

 A sign of just how normal life has become in Latvia is that “Paliec mājās” recently put itself into mothballs due to scant demand for its services. But it can still be revitalised if conditions worsen. And earlier in the summer, it rebranded itself “Viegli palīdzēt” (Helping is Easy), seeking to harness the movement’s energy for causes beyond the pandemic.

In July, “Viegli palīdzēt” arranged for volunteers to read out loud to people online around Latvia, in what it describes as an effort to improve emotional health. It is now engaged in raising funds for the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, avoiding overt political campaigning while helping dissidents cover legal fees and other expenses. There is also a knowledge-transfer project to assist Moldova, which has been badly hit by the Covid crisis.

Whatever direction the movement takes, Mārtiņš stresses that everyone has gained from it. Some of the most enthusiastic volunteers for “Paliec mājās” were people who had lost their jobs due to the crisis, and who discovered that helping someone else gave them a positive focus.

 “When we help someone else, the benefits are enjoyed by everyone involved,” says Mārtiņš.

Philip Birzulis, 16.09.2020