Now is the Time to Go Viral with Community, Sustainability and Social Justice

The Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters, one meaning danger and the other opportunity.

The Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters, one meaning danger and the other opportunity.

With every crisis there is opportunity. The good news is that we have abundant opportunities. Unfortunately, that’s because we face multiple crises – climate change, continuing racism, a growing income gap, and the breakdown of community. And now, we are confronted by a pandemic! I believe that the pandemic provides opportunities to address all these crises.

Strengthening Community 

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials are advising us to observe social distancing. Physical separation is crucial given the contagious nature of the disease, but we also need social connection.

Eric Klinenberg wrote Heat Wave about another silent, invisible disaster 25 years ago that killed more than 700 Chicago residents. As a sociologist, Klinenberg studied two adjacent neighborhoods with similar demographics and found that one had a death rate six times higher than the other largely because it lacked social connections. People didn’t know who needed help as their neighbors died behind closed doors.

Loneliness is its own pandemic. Throughout the world, growing numbers of people say that they have no one to socialize with or to turn to in times of need. A survey of 20,000 American adults revealed that nearly half of them felt alone or left out. This is one symptom of the breakdown of community which Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam documented in his book Bowling Alone. Single purpose land use, mobility, fear, electronic screens, globalization and professionalization have all contributed to the erosion of what Putnam calls our social capital. But community is not an outdated concept. We need it now more than ever.

It has been heartwarming to see so many people eager to provide help with this pandemic but many don’t know how to connect with those who need it. They are learning that people are more comfortable giving than receiving, especially from strangers. A good place to start, then, is in your immediate neighborhood where you already have or should have relationships. You might try some of the following ideas:

  • Call, e-mail or leave a note with neighbors who may be feeling isolated and vulnerable to check on their welfare and to assure them that they are not alone.
  • When you go to the store to stock up on supplies, get some for your neighbor who may be fearful of going out or has no means of transportation.
  • Develop a neighborhood pantry of basic food and household items.
  • Provide childcare to support those parents who must report for work.
  • Organize a Facebook page so that your neighbors can stay connected and informed.
  • Use social media to organize virtual scrabble games, happy hours or sing-alongs.
  • Support local businesses by ordering take-out or buying gift certificates.

Of course, it is crucial that you provide support in ways that are safe by practicing physical distancing and good hygiene and following guidelines for childcare during the pandemic.

The pandemic is an opportunity to build new, stronger and ongoing relationships. Research shows that strong communities are a key source of care, safety, health, resilience and happiness. These things are crucial to our welfare at all times.

Advancing Social Justice

Klinenberg’s other major finding from his research on the Chicago heat wave was that African Americans and poor people died disproportionately. Similarly, inequitable access to health care, housing and paid leave make many people more susceptible to coronavirus, and that’s bad for everyone’s health. The coronavirus pandemic is reinforcing the fact that we are all in this together.

Here are some of the immediate campaigns you could join or initiate to address the disproportionate impact of the virus on people who have been marginalized:

  • Resist efforts to blame the pandemic on a specific country or race.
  • Order take-out from Asian restaurants.
  • Make information on coronavirus available in all the languages of your community.
  • Advocate for the safety of refugees in detention camps and of other prisoners who are disproportionately people of color. Urge freedom for those who are at greatest risk for the virus but pose little risk to society.
  • Demand that the federal government provide tribal nations with the equipment and funding they need to combat the virus.
  • Insist that people with disabilities be treated like everyone else if the rationing of medical care becomes necessary.
  • Ensure that people who are homeless have access to hygiene, health care and food as well as shelter that enables physical distancing.

This pandemic is also causing us to realize that many of the people we are most dependent upon are insufficiently valued in our economic system. Workers who provide basic services are finding it impossible to afford to live in many of the same communities where they work. We must fight for living wage jobs and affordable housing. Farmworkers, grocery clerks, delivery workers, janitors, restaurant workers, and caregivers are here for us during the pandemic; we must have their backs as well. As the late Senator Paul Wellstone observed: “We all do better when we all do better.”

Slowing Climate Change

The pandemic is changing the way we live. Fewer people are flying, more are working from home, polluting industries have been closed, and there is less traffic. People are noticing and enjoying better air and water quality and less noise. With the breakdown of the global supply chain and the closure of local businesses, we’re finding it difficult to shop. Many people are learning that they can get by with less and that their happiness isn’t tied to the accumulation of things. All of this reduces our carbon footprint.

We’re slowing down, enjoying nature, and have more time to reflect on the future. How can we maintain these more sustainable practices? How can we strengthen our local economy and be less dependent on the global supply chain? If we can radically change the way we live in order to save thousands of lives from the virus, maybe we can make the transformations needed to save the entire human species from climate collapse.