March 20, 2020 -- Pandemics such as the new coronavirus outbreak can breed anxiety and fear, as shown by hoarding shoppers with overflowing carts and long lines of tense people outside gun and ammo shops. But they can also fuel kindness, with neighbors helping neighbors and complete strangers lending a hand to those in need.
When Jeff Kaplan, 58, began working from home in mid-March instead of going to the office for his software sales job, he decided he needed to "repurpose" his commute time to help others. "We have a pretty tight neighborhood page on Facebook," says Kaplan, who lives in Indianapolis. He posted about the possibility of helping around the neighborhood to cope with the need for groceries and other supplies. The response from others was instant -- Ping! Ping! “I want to help."
On his Facebook page, Help in the Hood, Kaplan directs those interested to the community he built with an online tool. Within a day after he posed the idea, 30 people had signed up. Other neighborhoods wanted in. As of March 19, more than 100 members in more than 20 different neighborhoods are involved.
Members report things like, "I'm at Costco, there's no chicken," so other members can stay informed. Kaplan got a request from one neighbor whose husband was traveling, and she had one sick child and another with special needs. He ran to the market to get her groceries. One member is "the store reporter," telling others that the milk has come in at Kroger, for instance. The group uses Venmo and PayPal to pay for purchases -- with no problems, Kaplan says.
Jaquelin Spong, 60, a physicist who lives near Woodstock, VA, in the Shenandoah Valley, was concerned about her neighbors and the potential for the epidemic to grow if people didn't stay home more. "We are pretty isolated [here] and we don't have any cases [of COVID-19]. People go to Walmart and say 'What is the problem?' "
As a physicist, she understands and tries to explain to people that the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is exponential. "If we don't do something really soon [to slow the spread], we are going to be in a world of hurt."
With others, she co-founded a Facebook group for community help. "It is not religious, not political, we are simply trying to solve the near-term problems." So far, 22 members are on board.
"In the morning, someone says, 'I'm going to Walmart,' and people who need supplies can post. The group is relying on Venmo for payments; for meetings, they use Zoom so they can keep their social distance.
Melissa Marten, 69, of Los Osos, CA, is a Pilates devotee and was dismayed when her teacher, Peggy Jern, had to stop classes when the studio she teaches at closed. With another student, she came up with a plan to relieve at least some stress. "We usually pay at the first of the month, but we went ahead and paid for April," Marten says. "We wanted her to know we appreciate her, we love her. She was overwhelmed."
Jern, 61, had already offered students private lessons at home to make up for the last 2 weeks of missed March classes. Some took her up on it. Getting paid ahead for April, she says, "was a total surprise. It was great."
Canadians have responded to community need by setting up Facebook groups and dubbing it as "caremongering" -- the opposite of fearmongering. Sue Wilkins, 67, of Dunnville, a town of about 6,000 people 2 hours south of Toronto, is one of the people behind a group called CareMongering Haldimand Ontario Response to COVID19, now with 398 members.
"I have some disabilities, I'm immunosuppressed," says Wilkins, a retired registered nurse. "I'm working behind the scenes, mostly." She's called the pharmacists in town to see if they are delivering free of charge or offering curbside pickup, and she posted those details, plus useful information about medications. Members can post requests of all kinds for help; other posts supply ongoing information about the outbreak.
Explaining the Outreach
"In a pandemic, we have more of an opportunity and more of a need to reach out," says Danna Markson, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in group private practice in Livingston, NJ. "I think the sharing and the generosity comes from an abundance mindset. More than likely, the person thinks, 'There is enough of everything to go around, and the universe will reward me down the road.' " The abundance mindset, she says, is the opposite of what she calls the scarcity mindset, held by people not likely to be generous.
During this pandemic, with social isolation encouraged, and sometimes ordered, to slow the spread of the virus, reaching out is also a way to make connections. "Reaching out and helping people give you a sense of social connection, which is a basic human need," Markson says.
A few days earlier, she says, "I was coming out of the supermarket and witnessed people sharing toilet paper out of the trunks of their cars. I thought that was really cool." No money exchanged hands that she saw.
Fighting for a common cause -- a stop to the crisis -- "obviously brings people together," says Talya Steinberg, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in Santa Fe, NM, and an adjunct professor of counseling at Southwestern College there. Because the pandemic is global, she says, "we actually are all facing the same catastrophe. This is unprecedented. If we are all in the same boat, we want to help each other."