Right now, more than 109,000 people around the world have contracted the novel coronavirus, and more than 3,800 have died. Meanwhile, much of the world is waiting anxiously, wondering how bad the pandemic threat will get and whether it will affect those they love.
It’s easy to feel powerless in a time like this — there’s not yet a vaccine or drug for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. And Americans are watching their government scramble to implement measures to keep them safe — something it may not be entirely prepared to do.
But while individuals may not be able to halt the spread of coronavirus, there are some steps we can take to help protect the most vulnerable — and to combat some of the social ills exacerbated by the virus, like racism and age discrimination.
From washing our hands regularly to calling out racism to checking on elderly neighbors, we can do a lot to support each other. And while one of the effects of coronavirus can be physical isolation — either because of quarantine or “social distancing” measures imposed by public health officials to reduce viral spread — experts say that staying connected with others, at least in some way, is more important than ever.
As Stacy Torres, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, told Vox, “You don’t want to isolate yourself to the point where you’re not also supporting others.”
Take basic precautions — not just for yourself but for others
At this point, many people are probably aware of some of the precautions you can take to help reduce your risk of getting sick. But the same precautions can also help reduce the spread of coronavirus, in turn reducing its toll on elderly people and those with other health conditions, who are most likely to become severely ill. That’s why even if you’re young and healthy, medical experts agree it’s important to follow certain simple steps.
First of all, wash your hands. As Vox’s German Lopez and Julia Belluz report, it’s “one of the easiest ways to avoid the spread of infectious disease,” capable of reducing respiratory infections by 15 to 20 percent. You should wash your hands after using the bathroom, blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, or caring for a sick person, and before eating.
Other precautions include avoiding touching your face, staying home when you’re sick, and cleaning surfaces that you touch a lot, like your phone, as James Hamblin writes at the Atlantic.
These simple steps can help protect you and those around you, and they can also reduce feelings of powerlessness.
“Anytime there’s something new, particularly when we can’t see it or feel it or taste it, [it] can create increased anxiety,” Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University School of Medicine, told Vox. But it can help reduce people’s worries to know that “there are things we can do.”
“We can really mitigate the impact of this disease,” Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on Monday. “There are personal responsibilities that we’re asking everyone in the United States to take.”
If you do feel sick, here’s some guidance from public health experts on seeking medical information and help. If you’re not in a high-risk group and have symptoms, you should call a health professional — a doctor, a nurse, or a public health official.
Prepare — but don’t over-stockpile
Like washing your hands, having some necessities on hand in your home — if you’re in an economic position to buy them — is something that can help you and others. If you’re quarantined, or if the place where you live asks people to stay home to reduce spread, you and your family will need to have things like food, toiletries, and medications on hand (though as some have pointed out, not everyone is able to get a supply of medications in advance, one of the many shortcomings of the American health care system that have been highlighted by coronavirus).
But it’s not just about the people in your home. Isolation measures will cause more people to depend on delivery, as Zeynep Tufekci writes at Scientific American. “But there are only so many delivery workers and while deliveries are better than people going shopping, it’s still a risk to everyone involved,” Tufekci writes. “So if fewer people need deliveries, then fewer people will get sick, and more people who need help such as the elderly can still get deliveries as the services will be less overwhelmed.”
This is especially important since many delivery workers lack paid sick time and, if they make a lot of deliveries to sick people, risk getting an illness they can’t afford.
Tufekci recommends enough nonperishable food for two to three weeks, along with some bottled water in case of a disruption in access (though, she notes, this is less likely than community isolation measures), any prescriptions you need, and basic over-the-counter medications.
But she and others also warn people not to buy too much. As she points out, masks are not necessary for most healthy people, and are also running out in many places, making it harder for those who do need them, like health care workers, to get them.
And if you have the ability to purchase what you need, Torres says, “don’t go overboard with stockpiling,” since that could make it harder for low-income people — who may not be able to afford to order online or go to lots of different stores — to get what they need. In other words, buy just a few hand sanitizers (if you can even find one), Torres says, not a case.
Don’t join in racism and xenophobia
People have been using the coronavirus, which first sickened people in Wuhan, China, as an opportunity to revive racist stereotypes for months now. As Jenny G. Zhang wrote at Eater in January, “the outbreak has had a decidedly dehumanizing effect, reigniting old strains of racism and xenophobia that frame Chinese people as uncivilized, barbaric ‘others’ who bring with them dangerous, contagious diseases and an appetite for dogs, cats, and other animals outside the norms of Occidental diets.”
Media outlets have at times played into stereotypes, often using people in Asia or of Asian descent as the “face” of the coronavirus crisis, as Vox’s Nylah Burton reports, even though “the outbreak is not confined to — nor can be blamed on — Asian people.”
In fact, there have been numerous reports of discrimination and even assault against people of Asian descent, perpetrated by people who have used coronavirus as an excuse for racism. And Chinatowns across the country have lost business as people have avoided restaurants and other public places there. Even health officials have sometimes enabled racism — as Torres and Xuemei Cao wrote in a recent USA Today op-ed, the University of California Berkeley health center was recently criticized for an Instagram post that referred to fear of interacting with Asian people as a “common reaction” to coronavirus news.
The school apologized after widespread condemnation, and for people who feel safe and able to do so, calling out racism around coronavirus can be an appropriate response, Torres said: “It may take, in some instances, bravery and dealing with awkwardness, but I think it’s important to say something.”
Many people may also need to check their own biases, Torres said, making sure that their behavior during this time is informed by science and not racism. That means following recommendations from health officials, “not avoiding whole areas just because a certain ethnic or racial group lives there.”
If businesses owned by people of Asian descent in your area are struggling, you can help by buying from them — a point city officials around the country have made by visiting Chinatowns in recent weeks.
Don’t write off the people most vulnerable to the virus — reach out to them
The fact that coronavirus appears most deadly in older people and those with underlying medical conditions has been reassuring for some who are young and relatively healthy. But some have gone beyond reassurance and into dismissing coronavirus as unimportant because it “only” kills the old and sick.
This attitude is “really dangerous because it sort of relegates people who have a chronic illness, people who have disabilities, and older adults” to a category of people who somehow don’t matter, Torres said, sending the message that “we don’t have to care about this group as much.”
Combating such narratives as a society is about “reaffirming our commitment that every life is valuable,” Torres said. “These are not just, oh, those people over there. These are our neighbors, these are people in our communities, these are people in our families.”
And on an individual level, for people who are young and currently healthy, pushing back against ageism can be as simple as making a point to check in on older relatives, neighbors, and people in your community, Torres said. The National Council on Aging has some basic tips for helping older people during this time, including making sure they have plenty of food and medical supplies on hand, including anything needed for dialysis or wound care.
The CDC has recommended that people over 60 stay home if possible and avoid crowds, and officials note that if you are sick, you should not visit an older adult or someone with a chronic condition that puts them at risk. However, you can always check in on loved ones and community members with a call or FaceTime.
If you are caring for older relatives, health officials also recommend identifying a backup caregiver who can step in if you get sick.
While some groups of people may be most vulnerable to the virus itself, others, including those who experience anxiety and depression, may be feeling the mental health impact of living in fear of a global pandemic. For those experiencing mental health challenges during this time, Gurwitch, the Duke psychologist, recommends resources like the Disaster Distress Helpline — as well as, if possible, taking a break from the news.
To support others who are having a hard time right now, Gurwitch says that just dismissing their worries can be counterproductive. “If I tell you, don’t worry about it, everything’s fine,” she said, “that really discounts my concerns.” Instead, “with our friends and families that are feeling distressed, we can empathize and we can validate that this can be a really scary, anxiety-provoking time.”
Rather than telling someone not to worry, consider asking what they are doing for self-care, Gurwitch said. And stay in touch if you can, “because when we sit with our thoughts all by ourselves, they can spiral,” she said.
With ever-changing restrictions and recommendations, meeting in person isn’t always possible. But Gurwitch advises people to plan ahead for how they might stay connected with friends, loved ones, and community members if they are quarantined or isolated, whether that’s FaceTiming with relatives or finding a way to stream a church service online.
Be informed and mindful of those most impacted
Misinformation about coronavirus, whether it comes from social media users or, troublingly, President Trump, can feed xenophobia and make people less safe. Experts agree that ordinary people should be getting their information from trusted sources like the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We really need to make sure that the information that we are basing our actions upon is coming from a trusted messenger,” Gurwitch said.
But being informed isn’t just about understanding the virus and appropriate precautions. It’s also about understanding the policy environment in which the virus occurs, and advocating for the changes you want to see to that environment. As Vox’s Dylan Scott points out, the spread of coronavirus is an excellent case, if anyone still needed one, for paid sick leave in the United States. It’s also a reminder of the millions of people in America who are uninsured or underinsured in America, and how vulnerable they are, both medically and financially, to a variety of public health threats beyond just this one. Not everyone has the luxury of thinking about public policy right now, but if you do, there are a lot of places to start.
Meanwhile, those in positions of power need to understand what those with less privilege are going through right now. People who work in food service, elder care, or cleaning likely interact with a lot of people every day and may be especially vulnerable to getting sick, Torres said. “These workers are largely women of color, immigrants, making really low wages, stitching together a number of jobs.”
Employers — including anyone who employs a nanny or a house cleaner — need to be “working with people who may be sick to be able to rest and recover” as well as making sure they have time off to care for family members who are sick or children whose schools are closed.
People with the means to do so can also donate to help those most affected by coronavirus. In the Seattle area, for example, a group of nonprofits and businesses has started the Covid-19 Response Fund, which aims to help people without health insurance, gig economy workers, and others, according to the Seattle Times — the fund is now accepting donations. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy also has a dedicated fund for coronavirus response, as well as general recommendations for donations: the center advises donating to organizations working in places with poor access to medical care, as well as organizations that focus on clean water and general sanitation and hygiene.
Overall, there can be a temptation during times of crisis to think of oneself and one’s family first — and depending on your situation, you may not have the resources to do more. But for people who do have the ability to support others, it’s a crucial time to do so.