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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Amid Social Distancing, Neighbors Mobilize Over Facebook

A few weeks ago, David Perez’s brother handed him a package of face masks and warnings about a new coronavirus spreading around the United States. Perez had heard about Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, but he wasn’t sure how serious it was, so he started doing some research. Online, he found startling reports, bizarre conspiracy theories, and a whole lot of questions about what people were supposed to do before the outbreak reached them.

The official line from the Centers for Disease Control is for people to wash their hands, cover their coughs, and avoid large gatherings. “Social distancing,” or the practice of self-isolating, has been understood as key to preventing community spread of the virus. Keeping people out of shared, public spaces could be the key to keeping the spread low enough to meet hospital capacity. That will be critical in the days and weeks ahead.

But that advice isn’t always easy to decipher. Should you still send your kid to school? Cancel a vacation months in advance? And while you’re home alone for the foreseeable future, what else are you supposed to do to make sure your community can survive?

The responsible amount of social distancing is often context-dependent, which has made it difficult for experts to offer yes-or-no answers. (This guide, from The Atlantic, gets into some of those nuances.) The guidance can differ between people, cities, and specific locations within those cities, making it that much more important for neighborhoods and communities to band together.

Perez lives in San Bernardino, California, which as of Friday still has no reported cases of Covid-19. Even still, the city has preemptively declared a public health emergency and encouraged residents to begin practicing social distancing. Perez wanted to figure out what else he could do to prevent the worst from reaching his community. So he created a Facebook group, California Coronavirus Alerts, for locals to huddle up about what was going on.

California Coronavirus Alerts is just one of many Facebook groups that have sprung up in response to growing concerns about the coronavirus. Some focus on emergency preparedness, while others exist to share news about the virus. Perez’s group specifically coordinates people in the Inland Empire, the region of California where he lives. Some are using it to ask for region-specific advice (is it still OK to go to Disneyland?) while others have shared notices and practices from local colleges, libraries, other spaces.

Drew Harris, who studies population health at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, says people should be concerned first and foremost with social distancing—it’s the only way to “flatten the curve” and ensure that hospitals don’t exceed their capacity. But next, it’s worth considering who in a community might be impacted most in a crisis. Harris is specifically concerned with what he calls second- and third-order effects of the virus. If schools get closed, for example, what happens to kids who rely on school lunch for a meal? What happens to the homeless? “The blood centers I’m part of are saying, ‘Let’s cancel all of our blood drives,’” says Harris. “And now we have a blood shortage.”

Giving blood is one way he suggests communities prepare. (America’s Blood Centers, which represents independent blood banks, reported on Wednesday that many of its centers have less than a day’s supply of blood. So, donating now could save lives unrelated to the coronavirus.) He also encourages people to donate to local charities that help people on the margins of society, or to get in touch with political representatives to request more help for the needy. “They can do that rather than just sit home and obsessively watch the TV and wash their hands,” Harris says.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

The internet can be a source of division (and, in the case of Covid-19, plenty of misinformation). But it can also be a way to come together in a moment of crisis. In a Facebook group for coronavirus news in Washington state, several people discussed problems with getting tested for the coronavirus. When one woman complained that her daughter couldn’t get a test—she needed to confirm a temperature of over 101 degrees, but thermometers at her local convenience store were all sold out—another member helpfully offered a place to find thermometers, while another suggested a local clinic that offered testing.

Groups like these can also help people connect to older neighbors or people who are self-quarantined but need help picking up basic supplies and groceries. They can help share intel on where to buy supplies, like toilet paper, when local stores get ransacked. One member of the Washington group posted a photo of her minivan full of dry goods and groceries. “Is there anyone in need of a meal tonight? If you are quarantined, please stay home. If you run out of food and have limited income or no help we are happy to,” she wrote, adding her email address.

In other neighborhoods, people are using low-tech solutions to band together. A Massachusetts-based group called Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville has created an adaptable Google doc that shows how to create a “neighborhood pod,” a DIY task force for organizing a community. The Google doc shows how to create a contact sheet, a group chat, and a list of questions around how to help each other during crises like the coronavirus.

Perez, who started the California group, says that groups like this can help communities in a way that local news can’t. “We interact with one another in the comment sections. People post personal stories about daily activities, what they are seeing in their communities and how they’re changing,” he says. “It’s important to be connected to others around you in times like this.”

Even more than that, he says, connecting with community members keeps people optimistic in a time when the news seems relentlessly dire. He’s not alone.

“This group has kept me sane and safe during such a hard time and I want to thank you all for the care and thoughts and prayers,” one person wrote in the Washington state coronavirus group, after posting about getting tested for the virus. “We received our positives but are on the road to recovery.”

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