Solidarity In A Time Of Social Distancing

There are ways to help people without putting yourself or others at risk from COVID-19.

NEW YORK CITY — A band practices rhythmic, shoegazey indie rock at a polite volume a floor above me. A Syrian family makes regular Costco trips, their wiry eldest son hauling the purchases up three flights of stairs. On summer nights, the young woman next door smokes on our shared fire escape and sometimes calls to my cat, who likes to watch her from the window.

This is about as much as I know about my dozens of neighbors. I’ve lived for three years in this five-story, 40-unit apartment building, built in 1917 as the subway expanded and New York City swallowed up farmland to expel the dense urban terrain we now know as Astoria, Queens. Like many New Yorkers, I maintain a semblance of privacy in close quarters by mostly keeping to myself.

I’m not antisocial. I enjoy my limited interactions: a head-nod hello in the hallway as I take out the garbage, a “How you doin’?” when holding open the front door. I’m not some interloper transplant who intends to eventually leave and raise kids elsewhere. My entire extended family lives in the area. I vote in every election, including the local one that was postponed this week amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. Whether it’s for a haircut, a shoe repair or a good egg sandwich, I’ve got my guy in the neighborhood.

But I abide by the New Yorker’s golden rule: I mind my business.

And yet, how can you remain insulated in your own individual existence when you’re living through a global pandemic in the nation’s most populous city? What good are rules when public officials are so profoundly failing to curb the spread of a disease with a rising death toll? And how can I be selfish when I face so few of the worst consequences of coronavirus as a healthy, able-bodied man who isn’t yet 29 and can spend a few hundred dollars on groceries without going broke?

This is a national crisis with unusual demands. Chief among them is to engage in social distancing, the act of staying home to avoid interactions in which you could unknowingly spread COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus. And, of course, washing your hands obsessively.

But surely more can be done besides hunkering down in collective panic. On Friday, in an abrupt 180 from normal neighborly etiquette, I scrawled my cellphone number on a piece of paper and taped it to the front door of my building, urging anyone who is elderly or immunodeficient and needs help to please call or text me. “You are not alone,” I wrote, cringing a little at the sincerity of the drama. “No está solo.”

I talked to a handful of researchers and activists and consulted tips that members of my labor union put together to create a short list of things you can do to safely show solidarity and help those suffering from the coronavirus and its economic fallout.

Not everything applies to everyone, nor should you strain yourself to participate. But for those willing and able to act, this might be a good place to start.

First of all, take social distancing seriously.

This means listening to public health officials pleading for people to stop attending unnecessary social gatherings. Many states, including New York, took sweeping measures to shut down bars, gyms and restaurants. Avoiding contact with others will limit the number of patients making demands on finite health care resources and give officials a chance to contain the outbreak.

Matt Pearce, a national reporter at the Los Angeles Times, put it nicely here:

And this video does a good job of illustrating how social distancing works:

Make yourself available to neighbors in need.

As of writing this on Tuesday afternoon, no one in my building has taken me up on my offer. But I intend to leave the signs up as long as I can safely honor the promise. If you are friendlier than me with those living near you, check in on them, preferably by phone, email or text message. Make sure they’re OK. If you are able to, take the necessary precautions and pick up groceries or prescriptions for them if they can’t go out themselves.

Link up with a mutual aid effort.

You aren’t the only one thinking this way. Religious institutions, neighborhood associations and grassroots groups are setting up networks to provide aid to those in need, either due to compromised health or plummeting income as a result of the economic downturn. Be honest about what you can contribute. Expertise in languages, budgeting, organizing or spreading the word are in demand and don’t necessarily require you to leave home if you’re not comfortable doing so.

Can’t find a mutual aid group? Start one! The Boston-area groups Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (MAMAS) and Mutual Aid Jamaica Plain drafted a helpful how-to guide here.

Keep paying those who do work for you.

There’s a good chance, according to analysts, that we are already in a recession and the economic data hasn’t caught up yet. Gig workers have historically felt the most immediate effects of economic slowdowns, and social distancing adds a whole other layer of devastation for the workers who clean your home, mow your lawn, walk your dog, teach your exercise class, do your nails, cut your hair and watch your kids. If you can afford to keep paying them, even as you mop your own floors and trim your own bangs, do it. At the very least, ask them what you can do to help them at this time.

Pay delivery and service workers the best tips you can.

In New York and a growing number of other states, restaurant dining rooms are closed but many are still serving take-out and delivery. While the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft suspended the option to share a ride with strangers, the companies are still deploying drivers. Taxi drivers ― already dying by suicide in shocking numbers as ride-hailing eats into their market and makes it harder for them to repay the costs of getting a license ― face the same circumstances.

If you’re ordering in or taking a ride, spare a little extra for these workers. MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist advised this week adding at least 5% onto what you would normally tip, so if you’d typically give 20%, pay 25%, and so on.

Buy gift cards or shop on local businesses’ websites.

You can help keep your favorite restaurants afloat without ordering on Seamless. Many restaurants and mom-and-pop retailers sell gift cards that you can use once the outbreak is under control and public life begins anew. Some local stores also sell stuff online. For example, the wonderful independent bookstore at the end of my block directed customers to its website.

Support efforts to stop evictions and utility shutoffs amid the crisis.

In 2016 alone, there were four evictions per minute in America, by one sociologist’s estimate. Countless more people behind on their bills lose access to the services required for basic modern life, such as electricity, water and heating. Cities across the country have begun to enact moratoriums on evictions and service disconnects.

If your city hasn’t done so, you can sign petitions demanding that city officials halt these actions, or go further and call for a complete suspension of rent, mortgage and utility payments during the crisis.

Support workers at the frontlines of the crisis.

Some petitions call for protecting nurses with adequate equipment. One calls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates safeguards against workplace hazards, to issue a temporary emergency standard to provide official guidance on infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

Another way to help frontline workers is to do your part with social distancing. Public transit workers, for example, can’t avoid the taxis and subways. But if you have the luxury of working from home and distancing yourself, you can take yourself out of the mix and avoid transmitting the virus to them or to others who may ride with them.

Share only vetted information.

Misinformation is ubiquitous on social media. Limiting what you post on Facebook and Twitter to credible, vetted sources is vital to reducing unnecessary panic and helping your friends and loved ones make responsible choices. It’s not always easy to know who you can trust online. The WNYC show “On The Media” has some helpful tips for spotting quality information amid natural disasters and waves of malicious fake news, many of which are applicable to the current pandemic.

Not all bullshit artists look the same. Some are obvious. (My mom once sent me a link from a website called The Daily Sheeple, which, lol.) Others adopt the veneer of a journalistic outlet but serve political actors. It is important to remember that “the media” is a decentralized industry with varying degrees of commitment to journalistic standards. There is often a bias toward dramatic new information even if it’s not vetted. Credible outlets correct misinformation and take responsibility for getting things wrong.

Beware of anything on social media that is not linked to a source of vetted information. Take, for example, what’s being called the Stanford meme, which claims to be providing information from a Stanford University health professional. When a real journalist at a magazine with real standards asked Stanford about it, the university completely disavowed the entire thing and pointed out heinously wrong pieces of information in the meme.

Engage online.

There are two big ways you can get involved online. Plenty of political organizing efforts are shifting to social media, and groups whose causes you favor are likely already holding live-streamed rallies and conference calls to discuss how best to respond to the pandemic and make use of social media activism.

But this isn’t only a time for activism. With students facing canceled school and parents struggling to balance working from home with caring for kids, there’s never been a better time to teach. Consider connecting with others who share your expertise and providing some kind of seminar, either through a call, a slideshow or streaming video. You can help educate people of all ages, but particularly children who are curious and displaced from their normal lessons.

What am I missing?

I’m sure these aren’t the only things, but I’m a reporter on a deadline. If you have more advice worth adding, share this story with your own tips or email me: Stay safe out there.

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