Coronavirus reminds us what functioning communities look like

New levels of neighborliness.
New levels of neighborliness.
Image: REUTERS/Molly Darlington
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Before coronavirus shut us in our homes, a month or a million years ago, most of us had uninspiring to-do lists that never really got done. They prioritized discrete, narrow tasks—a form for school maybe, a deadline at work, food for dinner. They did not typically include getting to know neighbors, making sure local elderly or disabled citizens had what they needed, or creating a sense of community.

Somewhere between work, kids, house, family, and friends, the idea of caring for those who lived in close proximity and yet were largely strangers to us became an abstract notion, a virtuous and distant hope but not a pressing priority.

Coronavirus changed all that. Our concerns have become local, our networks street-long as well as piped in via technology from around the world. The hustle of modern middle-class life—work, kids, activities, socializing, conferences, travel—has been reduced to the unit of the home, the radius of the local park, with quotidian destinations of grocery store and pharmacy.  We are stretched with different needs, but also given more time to notice. Many of us see in technicolor the details of a simpler life, of what is essential for survival, including each other.

We see what functioning communities look like as we start to use the muscles needed to build them. When the UK government appealed recently for 250,000 volunteers to help the National Health Service, more than 750,000 signed up. Every Thursday evening in the UK there’s a #ClapForCarers on doorsteps and balconies. British reserve is absent in these moments: People bang on pots and pans, they hoot and holler, and they linger, looking left and right, smiling kindly at the neighbors for whom they previously had little time.

As governments have boomeranged between false bravado and tragic indecisiveness, communities have leapt forward. Donald Trump may demand his name be put on relief checks sent to Americans, a crass bid to take personal credit for a core function of government, but medical students in Minnesota are arranging childcare for the kids of doctors who need to go to work.

“You can watch neoliberalism collapsing in real time,” George Monbiot, the conservationist and author, wrote in The Guardian. “Governments whose mission was to shrink the state, to cut taxes and borrowing and dismantle public services, are discovering that the market forces they fetishised cannot defend us from this crisis.”

In the days following the designation of Covid-19 as a pandemic, the number of groups on the hyper-local social-media site Nextdoor rose by 15 times, with users largely discussing how to help those in their community. Daily engagement on the site in March rose 80% from the previous month and terms like “coordinated” were used 80 times more. Mutual aid societies are flourishing and every country finds ways to manage the grief for the dead and for the loss of how we lived: In Italy they sing for their medics, in Ecuador a firefighter climbs his ladder to play Andean music on his trumpet, in Dublin they play balcony bingo.

What we chose to do with this newfound sense of connection will define the society we create in the aftermath of Covid-19, in the wreckage of mass unemployment and a world of loss and pain. There is no guarantee we will not just revert to our manic focus on the individual. Governments around the world are seizing power under the guise of protecting us from Covid-19; tech companies are tracking us; we are getting restless at home. Will elevating the collective remain a priority?

History suggests we can go either way. In 1942, in the wake of one world war and amidst another, William Beveridge created the template for the modern welfare state in Britain, laying out policies for full employment, a national health service, family allowances, and social insurance to combat poverty. When he published his report, half a million copies were sold within three days and the first edition sold out in a matter of weeks. The spirit led to action, which led to change: Life spans lengthened, access to education improved, and people out of work were cared for.

After the financial collapse of 2008, and widespread economic and social pain, the most tangible change was higher bank capital requirements.

What will be the legacy of the Covid-19 crisis? Will whatever good comes out of the moment be nothing more than a collection of random, temporary acts of kindness, or the start of a sea change in how we treat one another at a community level, and an economic one?

We’ve seen an alternate script for what collective life can look like. Will we do anything with it?

Knowing our neighbors, perhaps for the first time

Jennifer Bailey moved to the King’s Crescent Estate two years ago (estates in England are public housing). She is currently 39 weeks pregnant and lives alone, with no family or friends nearby. Her pregnancy meant she was deemed too high risk to leave home and she has had to self-isolate.

“I am so scared,” she said—about the pregnancy, about being alone, about having a baby at a time when a pandemic is overwhelming hospitals. Amidst her fears, the gas in her home recently ran out. She called the emergency number for the gas company, but no one answered. She remembered seeing a flyer on a wall of her building, with a phone number offering help. She called; Emley Pine, the head of the estate’s newly formed Tenants and Residents Association, answered.

Bailey explained her predicament. Pine was with her children so she couldn’t could go to the shop to top up the gas, but her husband could. Bailey planned to pay, but the shop refused to take a card payment over the phone, and Pine’s husband ended up spending £20. Bailey offered to pay him back, but he said they could settle up later, when things had calmed down. “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” Bailey said, emotion crackling through the phone. “It’s been a life saver.”

Since then, Pine has reached out several times to check on Bailey. Whenever she secures a slot for online delivery—a daily challenge in Covid times— she texts to see if Bailey needs anything. 

Pine is happy to be more connected to her neighbors, especially those with needs she can meet. Since she moved to the King’s Crescent estate in 2012, she’s sought to get involved. Last year, she led the effort to create the Tenants and Residents Association, in part to build a youth center for her kids, but also because she likes to build community. The work she’d done meant she was well positioned to help when coronavirus hit. She’d planted the seeds; in crisis, they bloomed.

“Community-wise, people have really come together,” she said. “It’s incredible to see.”

Bailey has lived on estates before; she had never reached out to a neighbor. She thinks that will change when the baby comes, and Covid-19 has passed. “It’s nice that there’s that community feel, that you are not alone,” she said.  “After my pregnancy, if [the crisis is] continuing, I will go help others on the estate.”

The efforts fan out beyond the estate, to others in the neighborhood. As soon as it was clear lockdown might be coming, Pine topped up an old phone and printed the number on flyers (including the one Bailey found) so everyone would have someone to call if they needed help. Soon other groups were pitching in, too. The Brownswood Mutual Aid Society teamed up with the local church, which now funds emergency food delivery to residents.

Alice Whalley, the vicar of the church, said anyone who needs food can get it—free of charge. “It’s a gift,” she said. In such dire times, people should not have to worry about asking; if recipients of donations want to pay it forward and donate themselves, they can. On top of supporting deliveries for isolated residents, the funds also go to the church’s food bank and soup kitchen.

Whalley said Covid-19 had been challenging but had also presented opportunities. “What’s beautiful is that people are perhaps knowing their neighbors for the first time,” she said. Maybe they volunteered before doing other things, raising money for a favorite organization through a charity run, for example, but now everyone is united in a common purpose. “We are all volunteering at the same time and it’s making the community look at itself,” Whalley said.

She thinks it will carry forward. After all, she points out, even when Covid-19 disappears, there will still be plenty of isolated people. The difference will be that others will know them, and know each other.

Communities that did the hard work of organizing locally before Covid-19, those that spent time understanding what people needed and what they had to offer, are now well-positioned for mutual aid.

In Limerick, Ireland, a middle-aged man who lives alone and cannot read or write would have been highly vulnerable in a pandemic situation. But he is looked after by neighbors, one of them told us. Every day at least seven people walk by his house as they walk their dogs. If there is a green light in the window, they keep walking. If there is a yellow light, the man needs an errand done—perhaps some food, or medicine. Neighbors come to the window and work out what he needs. If there is a red light, they have a plan for how to get him help, and for how to enter the house.

If Covid-19 has let us see what vibrant communities can do, it has also reminded us of how much our own communities mean to us. Sharon Cohen, a teacher and mother of two who lives in North Brunswick, New Jersey, always spends her birthday with a group of couples she and her husband have gotten to know over the years. They are friends she used to see frequently in the space of any given week, whether dropping off kids at activities or religious school.

Since the coronavirus lockdowns, she hasn’t seen any of them, aside from Zoom meet-ups. On Sunday mornings, when they normally would gather for coffee while the kids attended religious school, they now meet online.

On her birthday a few weeks ago, she and her husband sat on a bench in their yard. Suddenly, the cars starting coming, with friends leaning out of them holding “happy birthday” signs and singing and waving. Eight cars went by. The toll of being shut in, of balancing her work teaching her students while parenting her own kids, and missing her friends kicked in all at once. “When I saw my friends hanging out the window I immediately started crying,” she said. “It was very emotional because I did not expect it.” 

We don’t know how much we have until we lose it.

Needing more than Zoom can offer

Communities have been fraying for a long time. In a survey from the Carnegie Trust UK, 36% of respondents in England said people in their area were generous and kind; 43% made time to speak to their neighbors. Only 27% agreed with the statement, “I could turn to someone for emotional support if I needed it.”

“While ‘social distancing’ measures mean we are cut off from physical spaces, the crisis has nevertheless triggered a ‘mass re-neighbouring‘, allowing us to reach out and connect with people in our communities in ways that previously felt risky or uncomfortable,” writes Ben Thurman,  policy and development officer at Carnegie UK Trust.

In the US, according to the Pew Research Center, 41% of adults say they are not very or at all attached to their local community. But among those who say they know most or all of their neighbors, 77% feel very or somewhat attached. From 1985 to 2009, the average size of an American’s social network—defined by the number of confidants people feel they have—declined by more than one-third.

We have never been more connected virtually, but disconnected physically. That would seem fine, heading into a pandemic which asks us to exist primarily online. But technology’s pinnacle moment has only made more acute our need for human connection. Biology demands more than Zoom can offer. 

Our greatest insurance policy for getting through a crisis is each other. But we have to pay premiums of time, and intention. There’s been a revolution in what we understand about who we are (our cells, our DNA, our brains) and what we need (optimal sleep, exercise, and meditation) but no revolution in how to lead a connected life. It took a pandemic and the common purpose of protecting each other to see our interdependence.  

“All real living is meeting,” wrote Martin Buber, the early 20th century Jewish theologian. It is only in convening with others that we can make sense of the world around us.

Yet heading into this pandemic, suicide was a leading cause of death in many parts of the world. University campuses were buckling under the weight of young adults’ stress. Anxiety and depression was soaring among tweens and even children. Loneliness was rampant. The BBC reported in 2018 that, among 55,000 people asked about their relationships, 40% of adults between the ages of 16 and 24 said they felt lonely “often” or “very often;” a response shared by 27% of those over the age of 75.

That humans are not meant to be alone is hardly news. “Every one will admit that man is a social being. We see this in his dislike of solitude, and in his wish for society beyond that of his own family,” Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man. Poets and philosophers know it. Now science—the religion of our times—is proving it again, so maybe we will believe it. Research from 2010 showed that people who had weaker social ties had a 50% increased likelihood of dying early than those with stronger ones. Being disconnected was found to pose danger comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and was more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity.

Defining the future

So what will we build from the ashes of our shattered economy and our pain?

On April 5, Queen Elizabeth II delivered a brief televised message in Britain. Embedded in her message was a quiet call to arms to make something of the moment, to be the person you would have wanted yourself to be before everyone was locked down. “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge, and those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any, that the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve, and of fellow feeling still characterize this country,” she said, adding, “The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.”

There are a lot more “nows” to get through before we get to the “now whats.” As Covid-19 cases continue to increase, the devastating effects of mass job losses, increases in domestic violence, the prospect of even more widespread mental health problems, the isolation and abandonment of older people as they die alone will become more visible.

“As our institutions reach the limits of what they can do, communities must prepare to take on many of the functions traditionally provided by those same institutions: teaching our own; tending to our own and each other’s wellbeing; supporting those that are dying to do so with dignity, keeping each other safe; re-growing fragile local economies, growing local food; and stewarding our local ecologies,” writes Cormac Russell, a faculty member of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University. That will mean communities driving change and institutions supporting them—a fundamental power shift. Instead of government and nongovernmental organizations “solving” problems, perhaps more of them will simply fund communities that step forward to do so.

Maybe people will find power in being connected, in knowing who lives next door and caring who suffers more when collective chaos comes. Monbiot, the conservationist and author, is optimistic: “I have the sense that something is taking root now, something we have been missing: the unexpectedly thrilling and transformative force of mutual aid,” he wrote.

A recent UK YouGov study commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts found that only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” after the coronavirus outbreak is over; they value food and other essentials now, they have noticed cleaner air outdoors, and 40% of respondents said they feel a stronger sense of community.

But it is not too soon to ask if this moment in history will be transformational or just memorably horrific, for showing the inequities we have let fester.

In 2018, researchers led by Julia M. Rohrer, a PdD candidate at the Max Plank Institute, published research involving a large study of Germans who said they were committed to trying to become happier. The twist was that some had pursued self-improvement goals such as getting a new job or making more money, while others tried spending more time with friends and family. A year later, the researchers found those who focused on connecting more with others were happier than those who pursued self-improvement. “Not all pursuits of happiness are equally successful and corroborate the great importance of social relationships for human well-being,” they study’s authors wrote.

Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, said on Good Friday that his biggest fear in the aftermath of coronavirus was not just economic recession, but a recession of humanity, allowing the gains we’ve made in common purpose and empathy to fade away. “When, in the memory of humanity, have the people of all nations ever felt themselves so united, so equal, so less in conflict than at this moment of pain?” he said.

“We should not revert to that prior time when this moment has passed,” he said. “We should not waste this opportunity.”