How to Help Your Community Be Better Prepared for Covid-19 (and Future Emergencies)
by Kara Stiff
As the news broke of the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in my state, my little family is self-quarantined. There will be no homeschool meetup at the trampoline park for us this afternoon. We’ll skip our weekly visit to our best friends’ house tomorrow, even though we were really looking forward to helping them get ready for their new baby.
Why are we quarantined?
Because we’re running a low-grade fever with a snotty nose, and I don’t want to pass any minor cold to our elderly neighbors, or to our friends with existing respiratory issues. If we give them a cold now they’ll take a while to get better, and they might be more vulnerable to complications from Covid-19 if they come into contact with it before they recover.
We were prepared for quarantine.
We addressed our basic medium-term personal preparedness some years ago, so we didn’t need to do anything much to be ready for this crisis.
We heat and cook mostly off-grid, keep a stock of medical and sanitation supplies, grow a portion of what we eat and have access to excellent water reserves. If we needed to, we could stay home for any reason starting right now, and not experience any serious discomfort for months. We would miss all our socializing, but it wouldn’t even greatly impact our usual routine to stay home: homeschool, land maintenance, board games, reading, repeat. Of course, there is further preparedness I could do that might increase our safety slightly, but there isn’t anything I could do today that would increase our safety significantly.
I went to the store a few days ago with a stock-up list. Aside from dish soap, it contained only morale-boosters: chocolate, chips, good scotch. As every parent knows, an appropriate treat in a difficult moment can be invaluable, for us just as much as for the kids.
I didn’t look for masks because they work best when worn by people who are already infected rather than people hoping not to be. I can’t keep a hat on my kids, much less a mask, so I’d rather leave the limited supply of masks for people who are more likely to genuinely benefit from their use. If I had someone in my household who was especially vulnerable to respiratory complications, that would count as a person who can genuinely benefit, and I’d be getting some masks.
Having my family’s basic needs already addressed is a real load off my mind. I used to experience quite a bit of anxiety about unforeseen events, especially after I moved from earthquake country (which I knew how to handle) to hurricane country (which I didn’t).
Part of the reason I’m less worried now is that in thinking through our preparedness, I came to terms with the undeniable fact that most things in this world are beyond my control. But I’m also less worried because I took control of the things that I could.
Not everyone has that luxury.
Some people can’t get their doctors to prescribe a reasonable stockpile of essential medications, or they need regular access to a hospital for dialysis or some other life-saving service. Some don’t have an extra dollar to spend on food for later because they can’t cover food for today. Others can’t stay home even when they’re contagious because they’ll lose their job. And some are suffering from depression or other mental states that make it literally impossible to think about the future, much less plan for it.
Some of these have been issues for me in the past, and I’m just lucky those periods of my life were short. There are millions of people who live there permanently.
Systemic and personal barriers to other people’s preparedness affect me personally, even though my family is in pretty good shape. We live out in the country but we’re still surrounded by neighbors, and our fortunes will rise and fall with theirs. My family can only be as prepared as our neighborhood, our county, our state. Which is to say, not very prepared at all.
How I’m working on community preparedness
So instead of further addressing our personal preparedness with diminishing returns, I’m working on community preparedness. I’m not an elected official or a leader, just a private citizen, so the things I’m doing are friendly and neighborly things.
Before we got our little cold I did my friend’s monthly livestock feed run for her, saving her a day in the car so she can rest up and take care of things at home. Then, I took my elderly neighbors some extra eggs. I haven’t seen them in a while, and it’s to both of our advantages if they remember who I am. I reintroduced myself to my neighbor who just moved in, so he remembers who I am, too.
Of course, it’s safest to live in a tight network of preparedness-minded people with diverse and complementary skills who unconditionally support each other. But how many of us are actually achieving that right now?
It’s difficult to build and maintain that sort of situation in a nation where most people aren’t interested, and people are always moving. Some of my neighbors form a pretty good support group, but I also have neighbors I’m not close with. Knowing their names and faces is far better than not knowing.
Another thing I’m doing is giving extra money to my local food bank. In these times when all the headlines scream that unemployment is low and the economy is hearty, about 15% of my county is already leaning on the food bank, including lots of elderly people and families with small children. These are the people who can least afford a health problem or a wider financial disruption, and it’s ultimately better for me if they have access to the resources to stock up.
The greater the proportion of the population who can meet some of their needs in any emergency, be it a virus, a weather event or just a personal job loss, the more likely it is that any forthcoming disaster assistance can cover the remaining needs. More needs met equals less unrest (certainly not none, but less) and less unrest equals my family being safer (certainly not safe, but safer).
It’s easy to feel that because I’m all set, all those grasshoppers who won’t see to their own needs can suffer and it doesn’t affect me. But it isn’t true. I am safest when everyone is safest.
This week I’m reaching out gently to friends and family, especially those who are vulnerable because of asthma, pregnancy, age or other preexisting conditions. Because my anxiety about my own family is relatively low, I can speak to them in encouraging, soothing, practical ways, sharing information and urging them to get some extra food so they have the option to stay home, hopefully without stressing them out too much. A few people actually contacted me, and I was able to better answer their questions and listen to their feelings because I’m not panicking myself. They weren’t interested last week when I mentioned the virus offhandedly, but this week, they are.
People become receptive to preparedness on their own timelines.
You might have found in your personal conversations that people are uninterested or even scornful about your preparedness ideas. I’ve certainly found that. My dad was polite but not too excited about my thoughts during last winter’s ice storm. Now he’s been following the Covid-19 news, and all of a sudden he wants to talk more in-depth about water catchment, food storage, and communication if the cell service is ever disrupted.
His change of mind just goes to show that people have to become receptive all on their own. In my experience, all we ordinary private citizens can do is try to gently plant a seed of interest in preparedness topics, and then be there to water it when the circumstances are right. For a lot of previously uninterested people, those circumstances are right now, and they might be looking around for somebody to learn from. Groups you’re already a part of (such as clubs or churches) may also be more receptive now that they used to be.
I’m not suggesting giving them a guided tour of your storage, or anything else that compromises your own security, but something as simple as speaking quietly to group leaders, assisting them to support others.
I could be resentful that everyone didn’t come to these realizations when I wanted them to, but it’s more useful to be encouraging and positive now that they have. I could show off all my shiny knowledge about specialized equipment and extreme scenarios, but it’s more useful (and safer) to ask them what their concerns are, give easy, low-cost, basic recommendations, and acknowledge their fear without stoking it.
Self-quarantine is also a community-preparedness action.
Self-quarantine is also a community-preparedness action, which my family will undertake if/when our wage-earner’s workplace closes. His institution is our main exposure to circulating illnesses of all kinds. Homeschooling as we practice it is intended to give us more access to the world, not less, and it doesn’t isolate us from anything, certainly not infections. My kids lick the grocery cart like all kids do (why, why must they do that?). However, much of our socializing happens outside in mixed, rotating, medium-sized groups. Virus-wise, this is not at all the same as marinating in a room of the same 30 children day after day, like I did as a kid. Still, we’ll skip our regular meet-ups when schools close.
My household is all under 40 with generally good immune systems and no relevant preexisting conditions. All the available data says that if we get Covid-19 we will feel crummy and then recover. We’ll stay home not out of worry for ourselves, but because I’m highly concerned that we do not spread Covid-19 to my retired parents, or my friends with asthma, diabetes or COPD.
If we get a rapid increase in cases in my area, the number of available hospital beds will not cover the number of people who need hospital care. That is when people will die who could have recovered. The greater the proportion of the general population who can comfortably stay home, the slower the spread, and the slower those cases will show up at the hospital. Instead of a rapid spike, there will be a lower, broader hump of people needing treatment, allowing the medical system to cope more effectively, and fewer people to die.
Reframe preparedness as a community effort.
I know that popular interest in preparedness goes in cycles, falling into ignorance when times are good and blooming into a panic when times look bad. I think part of the reason the masses are so disengaged with the whole topic is that humans are a social species; if we trust that the system will care for us then we feel like we’re part of the group, and most humans are deeply incentivized by our genes and our feelings to want to be part of the group. Preparing to take care of ourselves doesn’t produce the same feeling of connectedness.
But if we re-frame preparedness on a community level then it can feel like being part of the group, in a much more satisfying way than just trusting to wider society. With the community as the introduction, maybe some of the people who get interested now will stay that way.
If you’re already prepared, I hope you’ll join me in reaching out to support people who are new to the concept and give your community a better chance of seeing less suffering. If you’re more experienced at community preparedness than I am, please give additional suggestions in the comments. I want to do more.
Kara Stiff grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and got her BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine. Now she lives with her husband, two small children and some number of goats on 17 acres in rural North Carolina. She documents her family’s journey toward resilience, community engagement and a lower environmental impact at low-carbonlife.org.