For Marilyn Salenger, the stress of the last few days has been acute. She’s been trying to overcome feeling “locked in” since Friday, when President Trump declared the coronavirus outbreak a national emergency. As a 75-year-old, immunocompromised woman living alone, Salenger is considered an at-risk population for the disease. She hasn’t left her Washington, D.C., apartment much at all in the last few days.
But when she logged onto the neighborhood social network Nextdoor on Sunday, she was “taken aback.” There was a post from a woman living close by that promised: “We’re here to help!” Kathleen Borgueta, a 33-year-old public health worker, was offering to run errands for anyone in the area. Dozens of neighbors responded, promising to offer a helping hand in whatever way they could, too.
“It made the day so much easier to deal with,” Salenger says over the phone, describing her reaction to the post. She ended up replying with a thank you on the thread — and allowing herself to be “vulnerable” by identifying as someone in that high-risk category. “Even though I didn’t ask anyone in particular for help, just knowing that these wonderful people who are my neighbors who I don’t know offered to help if I needed it — not just me personally — it meant a great deal,” she says.
As normal life comes to a halt across the country, people are reaching out on social media platforms, doling out similar offers. This is playing out locally, as in Salenger and Borgueta’s case, and on a larger scale. Some people have been creating spreadsheets — in which people can post financial offers or requests — that are meant to help those whose work is impacted by the shutdowns.
This type of good will from others is common when it comes to public health crises, according to Dina Borzekowski, interim director of the Global Health Initiative at University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. “People in emergency situations, whether they’re natural disasters or man-made disasters, do reach out to others,” she says. “The panic that we see in movies and on television shows or mythology is just that.”
Famous people, too, have been offering personal assistance. Writer Roxane Gay, for example, had a Twitter post go viral after promising to Venmo $100 to the first 10 people in need.
Madison Pickett, a 27-year-old seamstress living in Chicago, was one of the recipients of Gay’s $100 Venmo. Her boyfriend is an independent contractor working in event production, which means he’s completely out of work with no safety net right now. After replying to Gay’s tweet, though, the money didn’t stop there — others began sending Pickett money as well. In the end, she received $350 from about 15 different people.
“It’s wild,” Pickett says. “I almost didn’t like it. It made me feel guilty all that came to me. Not that I’m not in need of it, but I was really just kind of blown away by it.”
The idea of financial help has been picking up steam online. Last week — around the time that many workplaces began implementing work-from-home policies — Binya Koatz posted on Facebook. A 25-year-old software engineer living in the San Francisco Bay area, Koatz believed that people still receiving an income should be helping out those who might be laid off because of the pandemic.
One of her friends created a Google spreadsheet that could facilitate pairing donors with people in need. Within a day, they’d managed to transfer $450. Several days later, that amount has grown to $40,000. So far, they haven’t encountered any bad actors. But the demand still far outweighs the donations, Koatz says; they’re still trying to get white-collar workers to help out.
For Koatz, the most rewarding story she’s heard so far was from a transgender man living in Europe, who needed a small amount of money to make rent. “You see the way this coronavirus can compound already disastrous social circumstances,” she says. “And just being able to connect with him and share what was a very small amount of money to help him survive — I’m trans also — that was an incredibly beautiful and meaningful experience.”
For Borgueta, too, her Nextdoor post was about addressing disparities. She’s lived in D.C. for about 15 years now, and it has made her “painfully aware of the gaps in health care” in the city, she says.
Borgueta was unsurprised that most of the replies to her thread — which was posted to the feed for Logan Circle, a wealthier neighborhood in the District — were promises of additional offers to help, instead of requests. She’s still trying to figure out ways to connect to the communities that she feels are most at risk.
What’s most important, Borgueta says, is that after this initial outpouring of support, people continue to be there when their neighbors need the help. As she puts it: “A couple weeks from now, maybe when it’s harder to be optimistic or make an extra run, that’s when it really matters.”
As the crisis continues to worsen — six counties in the Bay Area were ordered to “shelter in place” Monday — it’s also important to take stock of how to help “safely,” says Eva Enns, a health policy professor at the University of Minnesota and an infectious diseases expert. Although it’s important to “reorient our societal values around getting through this and toward that neighborly support,” she says, “the social distancing component is so important.”
Enns suggests helping out in ways that don’t necessarily require contact — picking up groceries for neighbors and literally leaving them outside their doors is a good start. It’s most vital to support the workers whose jobs will continue to be essential to keep society running: those in health care, but also those with jobs such as trash collecting.
“We should all be working to make sure that people can be safe, that they can get through this, and the people that need to keep working can keep working,” says Enns. “Everything else can wait.”
For the time being, Salenger is holding onto the “unexpectedness” of the good will of others. She was supposed to celebrate her 76th birthday on Wednesday in New York with family. Instead, she’ll be staying inside her apartment in D.C.
Even more than the Nextdoor post, what gives her hope are the couple of real-life neighbors who have reached out to help. One brought her dinner the other night; another offered to take her dog for a walk. If anything, Salenger says, the crisis “has brought out the best in a city. And it just keeps coming.”