Only a community can fight the virus

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on March 27, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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Six weeks ago I attended an awards program at Manitou Springs City Hall that was packed with people. Describing the celebration, resident Shanti Toll reminded the attendees, “This is the day we are aware of ourselves as a community. This is special because…being aware and participating for the common good is the essence of all communities.”

We may need that community now more than ever.

Mr. Toll’s introduction from that night still rings in my ears. It rings even louder because, that evening, the number of global cases of novel coronavirus (known as “COVID-19”) approached ten thousand, with two hundred deaths, and the disease had spread into twenty countries. In just the six weeks since, as of this writing, COVID-19—which infects others much more readily than the routine flu, yet kills at a much higher rate—has grown exponentially, cratered financial markets, and ground life as we knew it to a full stop.

And now it’s here. There are over 1,430 presumptive positive tests in the state. COVID-19 has caused 24 deaths in Colorado, and three in the Pikes Peak region.

What’s worse, so many are threatened directly by the virus. Some physically, and some economically.

While for some it’s not much solace, it is important to take heart in knowing that our region’s seen some very hard times. World War I and the Great Influenza. The Great Depression and the Second World War. Floods and fires. Our cities still stand.

And so are the people that love these little cities beside America’s Mountain. We may be isolated but we’re never alone. We may be quarantined but we have our neighbors. We may be frightened but we can help each other.

What we need now is a contagion of another kind. A contagion of our own. A positive contagion to outlast a negative one. A contagion of our making that fights back against sickness and dread.

What must be done? First, organize. Find a safe, socially-distant way to collaborate to help those in greatest need: the aged, the disadvantaged, our businesses, and lastly, our neighbors when hit and harmed.

It’s not hard to imagine elderly that will need checking in on in some way. Particularly if family members that normally fill this role fall ill and fear transmission, the community may need to fill that vacuum. Even if it’s by phone or from a front-door-safe-distance. Now is the time to ask those normally-awkward questions, ahead of the gathering storm.

Assuming the disruption to work and paychecks that’s already under way, community pantries will likely need more donations than before, for longer than ever. If you’ve ever considered giving, now is the time.

We should be concerned about our businesses. As Eric Klinenberg, sociology professor at New York University recently pointed out, “We all need to be worried about the corner diner and the new coffee shop and the bodega and the small nonprofit organizations,” because they contribute so much to the composition of the community.

Our business, many of which are run and owned and staffed by our neighbors, need help. Beyond just re-negotiating payments, or local grants, we in the community can contribute too. Perhaps now’s the time for individual businesses or the Chamber of Commerce to organize a program of pre-pay gift cards—pay now, eat or shop later—to inject cash into a business to help them through a really tough time. It’s the same principle as a war bond, an investment in the community that very well may make the difference in an uncertain time.

Lastly, the individual. Just as when it rains we get wet, it’s nearly a mathematical certainty that someone (maybe many) will be touched by COVID-19. Worse than the illness itself, when infected, people in isolation tend to feel alone. It’s natural but harmful.

This forces a question: What will we do? When one of our neighbors or fellow citizens falls ill, which is almost guaranteed at this point: What will we do? Will we hunker down and say “better them than me?” Or will we carefully organize to shop for the sick, get groceries to those in need, send well-wishes even if through a window, and make cards (something I’d imagine our grade-schoolers would excel at, and may bring a smile to the face of even our sickest citizen).

What a difference six weeks can mean. Then, I thought Mr. Toll’s words were simply uplifting. Now, I think they’re necessary. Only a community can fight a contagion.

 

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