As an increasing number of school districts and institutions shut down and more and more people practice social distancing, you might be looking inward as you try to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic. Undoubtedly, that means asking, Do I have enough food? Am I sure 17 bottles of Purell is enough? How will I fill all this time? These are all reasonable things to think about!
In any sort of crisis affecting the whole of us, though, you should also take a moment to look outward—although you don't have to look very far. As you go about your preparations, think about how your tiny community—your block, your building, or whoever else lives close enough to be your immediate neighbor—can prepare, and how you can be a part of those preparations.
During a major crisis, an incredible amount of resource-sharing and taking care can and should happen at a micro level. Yes, you should be thinking about the entire country and world… but you should also remember that thinking small and getting to know your neighbors could literally mean the difference between life and death as people try to contend with a public health issue unlike one any of us has ever dealt with before.
Not everyone has had the good fortune to be able to plan ahead. Those of us who can should do it now, today—and include others in those plans. Here are some tips to help you show up for those around you, even if you don't know them yet.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel—consult the great resources that already exist.
If you’re new to connecting with your local community, you may be feeling overwhelmed. Great news: There are already Google Docs filled with tips and resources for neighborhood/community planning being shared widely, and more will surely pop up in the coming days. Here are a few to start with:
- COVID-19 Collective Care. This is a comprehensive resource that includes tips for things like personal preparation, supporting the most vulnerable populations in your community, and keeping up with the news.
- How to Neighborhood Pod. If you’re willing to take on the responsibility of being your neighborhood’s point person, this guide explains what that entails, has suggestions for getting started, and links out to more relevant resources.
- A Neighborly Invitation Regarding Coronavirus. This is a form letter you can copy, edit, and distribute to your neighbors to get a community group off the ground; the letter asks them for basic details (like name and phone number) and invites them to share what they might need and be able to offer others.
- Community Care and Mutual Aid Sign-Up. This Google form is another way to collect information from your neighbors. (Caveat: It can’t be distributed in person. If you need something more accessible, or you don’t have everyone’s contract information yet, use it as a jumping-off point to create a worksheet to print and distribute.)
Practice excellent hygiene in common areas.
You’re probably getting better about washing your hands with soap and water by now, and are especially diligent after trips outside… but now would be a great time to think of other people, too, in order to keep you particularly attuned to this. Start washing your hands before you go out, and/or promise yourself that you’ll sanitize buttons and door handles after touching them.
Be conscientious of who you’re inviting into your building.
Does your partner who insists on going to concerts while refusing to step up their hand washing habits want to come over for the weekend? Is your pal with the flu-like thing still insisting they are fine and should be allowed to attend your regular D&D game as planned? The answer is no.
Introduce yourself to your neighbors and/or exchange phone numbers, if you haven’t yet.
A very easy, low-fi way to make yourself available to neighbors is simply putting a handwritten note on your door (or on the inside of the front door of your building). Include your name, phone number and/or email address, and, if applicable, your apartment number, plus a message that people can call/text you if they want to connect or need help. If there are specific tasks you’re willing and able to do, it might make sense to add those. (“I’m able to baby-sit, walk your dog, chat via FaceTime, make pharmacy runs, and share my huge supply of cat food with anyone who has run out.”)
You could also knock on other people’s doors, but if you’re worried about getting too close—or worried they’ll be worried—opening communication by posting a note is a good place to start.
Start a community “in need of” list.
Set out a notepad in a common area and encourage people to write their name, phone number, apartment/house number, and whatever specific thing they need—Tylenol, shampoo, some chickpeas, whatever—to it. You could also do this digitally via a Google Sheet or Slack room if your neighbors are all online—which brings us to...
Set up a WhatsApp, Slack, or Facebook group for your community.
If your neighbors are interested in being able to share updates about mutual community support, a group chat might be helpful. The thought, “It’s fairly easy to set up and use, but feel free to call me if you’re confused and would like me to walk you through it!” should be a prominent part of this conversation, to ensure that everyone who wants to can log on.
If you do create a group, make a point to be super vigilant about the spread of misinformation. We know how ugly apps like NextDoor can get, and, on Thursday, a misleading and incorrect "informative" text whipped through New York City group chats very quickly. Stay on top of the chat—and ask for others' help—to ensure that people aren’t disseminating or spiraling over misinformation or conspiracy theories, and ask that everyone in the group try their best to credibly confirm what they're sharing before dropping the latest rumor into a group of anxious, vulnerable people. (Every group is a group of anxious, vulnerable people right now.) You could even add, “Please confirm the source of anything you post here,” in the group’s guidelines.
Ask your neighbors what they, personally, are most worried about, and tailor your help accordingly.
You can’t tell what people’s major concerns are just by looking at them or assuming you know what's best for them. One neighbor might be immunocompromised and stressed about picking up an important prescription from the pharmacy; another might be worried about a loved one who is incarcerated in another state. Someone else might be worried about missing work and losing wages.
Once you know what people’s biggest fears and challenges are, you can better help them, or connect them with other people who can offer more assistance or tangible resources. So ask, and/or pay close attention to the things they mention in passing.
Ask people who live alone if they would like you to check in on them daily and if they want to give you their emergency contacts' info.
Some neighbors might say they don’t need you to keep up with them—maybe their sibling or child is calling them regularly, or maybe they are a bit too proud—but it’s worth asking, and keeping a general eye on their place. (Are the lights being turned on and off at regular hours? Has it been strangely silent for a while? No need to be nosy, but do pay attention.)
If you live alone, ask others to check in with you regularly and/or share the name and number of the person you’d like them to call if you are suddenly in bad shape or if they haven’t heard from you. Doing so is both good for your own health and peace of mind—and it normalizes this kind of behavior for elderly or immunocompromised people, and everyone else, too.
What people might need most right now is someone to talk to, so be available to listen when you can.
While social distance is good and important in order to protect our individual and collective health, some experts are worried about the impact that prolonged time alone will have on people’s mental and physical health. As a recent Vox article about a potential “social recession” pointed out: “Local clubs, religious services, and time with family bring social structure and joy to many of our lives, but they are particularly important touchpoints for those who don’t work or can’t go out on their own due to age or health conditions. If older and sick people have to refrain from these activities for months on end, their lives will be worse, and the rhythms and relationships that once sustained them may prove hard to rebuild.”
Does that mean you shouldn’t hunker down for the sake of public health? Absolutely not. It does mean that you should make a point to be a friend to your neighbors in the coming days and weeks, especially those who live alone (even if they are on the younger side—Millennials get lonely and depressed too!). Embrace the phone call, set up a regular Google Hangout, and make a habit of sending a daily “How is everyone doing today?” message to your neighborhood group chat.
If you’re fairly tech-savvy, offer unique assistance to people who aren’t.
Skills that many younger people take for granted—like, say, knowing how to order groceries online, deal with a pharmacy’s automated phone system, or recognize fake news—are not given realities for some older people. Keep this in mind if you’re feeling like you don’t have anything useful to offer right now, or if your own health concerns mean you can’t be too hands-on with your neighbors. Let them know what you’re offering—maybe it’s just that they can call you if they need help navigating a particular website, or perhaps you’re willing to just do certain tasks for them online if that’s easiest for everyone.
If you have COVID-19 symptoms, say so… but aim to do so in a way that avoids panic.
If you’ve had a dry cough and fever for days—or any serious symptoms that would lead you to get tested if tests were widely available—it’s worth letting people know via text or phone call. But be aware that doing so could really stress people out. Be direct and honest as you communicate the facts: “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve had a fever that’s been going up and down and a dry cough. I’ve been in touch with [urgent care/my PCP/the ER] and have been told it doesn’t warrant a COVID-19 test. That said, I’m a bit freaked out, and will be hunkering in my apartment for the foreseeable future. If you wouldn’t mind texting to check in on me a couple times a day, I’d really appreciate it.”
If you have a diagnosed flu or are 99 percent sure you're just dealing with your standard allergies, it’s probably worth letting people know so they don’t panic every time they hear you sneeze through the walls. Say something like, “Hi! I just wanted to let you know that I was given a flu test yesterday; it came back positive, so if you hear me or see me looking sick, don’t worry too much. Even though I don’t think it’s serious, I’m still taking every precaution, washing my hands a lot, and staying inside.”
Things feel incredibly scary right now, and the urge to put yourself and your loved ones first at every turn is understandable. That’s the exact attitude leads to panic, distrust, and a toilet paper shortage. So be smart, but also be brave. The only way we’re going to get through this is together.
Don’t play your ukulele or Love Is Blind super loudly if you share a building with others.
C’mon, you guys. Just… be cool.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter .