The number of ways we’re being screwed by the coronavirus is kind of astonishing, and the impact goes far beyond the immediate health effects of the illness. Hospitals are running low on basic supplies, schools are closed, the economy is tanking, and many of us are anxious out of our minds.
The most effective answer to many of the hardships lies in the government using its unparalleled power to care for its citizens. That means bailing everyone out—not just big business but small ones and families, too. That means coming up with an actual plan to supply the widespread testing we’ll need to exit our homes routinely before a vaccine is distributed. And it means scaling up the abilities of hospitals to care for those who get ill. But for most of us—besides calling our representatives—there’s little we can do to affect the government’s actions until November.
Until then, we can take individual action. We’ve collected stories of how people across the country are taking steps both small and large to help businesses, neighbors, doctors, friends, and total strangers. We hope it will inspire you to do something, however small it may feel.
Hospitals nationwide are facing a severe shortage of N95 respirator masks, which are essential to health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. When they’re worn properly, N95 masks filter out at least 95 percent of small airborne particles, including viruses.
If you panic-bought valuable N95 masks for your own personal use (experts do not recommend that healthy members of the public wear masks), now is the time to donate them, either by taking your masks to a local drop-off location or arranging a pickup from your house. Efforts to collect masks are wide-ranging, with some hospitals asking for them directly and others relying on donations gathered by other organizations or individuals. The Farewell director Lulu Wang helped collect 1,000 masks for a major hospital and a community health clinic in Los Angeles last week. Meanwhile, Julianne Dalcanton, an astrophysicist at the University of Washington, has started a drive in Seattle. In New York, there’s a formal hotline to find a place to donate personal protective equipment, or PPE, and after call volume soared, it’s now operating via email. Finally, a group of Georgetown medical students started MedSupplyDrive, which operates nationwide. If you have masks and no clear local mask collection effort, you can reach out to them to get help finding a place to donate.
Some small businesses are also proving to be sources of masks. In Las Vegas, the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada has put out a call for all PPE from tattoo artists, salon owners, dentists, plastic surgeons, contractors, painters, and piercing studios, many of which have been forced to reduce their workload to only essential services or to temporarily close altogether. Tea Leigh, a tattoo artist in Brooklyn, started soliciting spare supplies—including masks, gloves, wipes, and alcohol—from fellow ink artists on Instagram over the weekend. “I understand that people are going to need these supplies once returning to work, but right now we need to be thinking of the health care professionals so that they can continue to save lives and fight this pandemic,” says Leigh, whose own mom is both a nurse and someone at high risk for COVID-19 due to her health. “I’m asking everyone to be selfless.” —Chloe Hadavas
Last week, I started delivering for Meals on Wheels, the nationwide network of community-based programs that bring prepared food to homebound seniors. Because increased age brings greater vulnerability to this disease, it is vital that as many seniors as possible isolate themselves within their homes. In my home of Lake County, California, and beyond, MOW is working to make that happen, increasing outreach to find the seniors who lack support networks by calling every resident over 60. It’s offering its usual service of hot and frozen meals, as well as offering to make deliveries of groceries, prescriptions, or other basic needs.
MOW is in a volunteer crunch. As it works to reach more seniors in this emergency, most of its existing volunteers are themselves over 60, and thus should stay home. Wherever you live, your local MOW almost certainly needs both volunteers and donations. MOW is especially important in small communities. My rural county has only six ventilators. If the coronavirus starts to take off here, it could be very, very bad. If the local Meals on Wheels program can keep older folks isolated away from the disease, it—we—will save lives.
Of course, saving lives also depends on delivery drivers not infecting the seniors ourselves, or spreading the virus among one another. During orientation, we spaced ourselves six feet apart. We were instructed to wash our hands and put on disposable gloves, and to change the gloves regularly as we went along our routes. We were asked to put meals down (if there was an outside table or convenient spot) for seniors to pick up instead of handing them off, and, of course, we were told to stay home if we felt sick.
My first deliveries went off without a hitch. Lake County is full of natural beauty, so I drove on winding country roads with views of the lake and mountains to make my deliveries. Some of the folks I delivered to felt like chatting, and we began to get to know one another, from a safe distance; others preferred a quick delivery with no fuss. Either way, it just felt great to help. And as I was starting to feel the onset of cabin fever, providing an essential service also gave me a good reason to get out of the house. —Evan Urquhart
Babysit for a Health Care Worker
Many parents are now working from home with their stir-crazy and bored kids underfoot. But many other parents can’t work remotely, including most of those who are doctors and nurses. “Given the current public health crisis, the last thing we need is our frontline health care workers needing to stay home because they’re unable to find someone to watch their 3-year-old,” says Jillian Schneider, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Alberta. With in-person classes and clinics suspended, but not enough training to tend to coronavirus patients, medical students like Schneider are recruiting their classmates to help doctors and nurses in another critical way: as babysitters for their kids.
Student-powered child care programs are now in the works at all of Canada’s 17 medical schools, as well as at a few in the United States. Through Google Forms, students volunteer to take on chores for medical workers from pet sitting to grocery shopping. The greatest need by far is for babysitters—child care is a challenge for many health care workers even in nonpandemic times, says Joseph Boyle, a second-year medical student and organizer at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
Safety is paramount to making these programs work, since babysitting requires sacrificing a degree of social distancing. With consultation from public health officials, students implemented a number of precautions to make sure they’re not exacerbating the spread of COVID-19, such as matching up only one student to each family to limit social contact; barring students from participating if they live with an at-risk person, are at-risk, or recently returned from travel outside the country; and requiring students to stop volunteering if they feel sick.
You don’t have to be a medical student to provide frontline workers with babysitting services. In Rochester, Minnesota, two sisters, one in high school and one in college, created their own babysitting program to support health care workers at the nearby Mayo Clinic. If you are healthy, otherwise socially isolated, and prepared to watch Frozen 2 on loop, see if a doctor or nurse in your community—or anyone whose job is essential to society functioning, really—could use a hand with their kids. —Rachael Allen
Talk People Through Anxiety
While many therapists are now making their services available via video chat, paying for therapy is still expensive, and that can be all the harder to manage in an economic downturn. Fewer resources are more equipped for the frightening and isolating times than the Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit offering 24/7 support to anyone experiencing any kind of personal distress. Demand for the text line is now double what it normally is, with up to 6,000 people texting a day, according to Ashley Womble, a spokeswoman for the organization. Anxiety is one of the top issues they’re helping with; many of the people reaching out for help cite the coronavirus specifically.
The crisis line relies on trained volunteers to text back and forth with folks who need to be talked through a moment of panic, loneliness, or depressive thinking. They need as many of those volunteers as they can get right now, says Womble. “We’re expecting to be in a high-volume place for a while.” After this first wave of coronavirus-induced anxiety, they expect to see more of the less direct effects of the pandemic, stemming from social isolation. Domestic violence and child abuse cases will likely rise, along with depression and substance abuse.
If you have found yourself suddenly with ample free time, consider applying to become a volunteer. (Anyone who is empathetic and has time would make a good crisis text counselor, says Womble, but the greatest need is for night owls and people on the West Coast, as volume is highest at night.) It’s no small commitment: Because the training costs the organization $1,000 a person, you’ll be expected to volunteer at least four hours a week until you hit 200 hours total. The training itself typically involves 30 hours of videos, quizzes, and role-play activities to refine your crisis counseling skills. But you’ll be able to volunteer and do something meaningful for a stranger in crisis without leaving your home. Finally, if you don’t have the time, the organization always welcomes donations.
To access the support from the text line yourself, text HOME to 741741 if you’re in the U.S. Numbers for those in Canada and the U.K. can be found here. —Molly Olmstead
Buy Yourself a Gift Card
During any other crisis, Alexis Nahoum and the massage therapists at Melt Massage & Bodywork in Brooklyn, New York, would know how to calm people. But massages and social distancing, well, do not mix. Nahoum had to temporarily close Melt, which she co-owns with her partner, early last week.
Shortly after, Nahoum sent an email to clients detailing options to support Melt: links to gift cards, prepaid plans for future services, and a Venmo account for donations directly to massage therapists. By the end of the day, she received about $3,000. Clients wrote messages like “you helped me through my entire pregnancy, now is my turn to support you guys” and “take the five-pack on my account that I pre-purchased last month and give the entire value to my therapist.” The five-pack is worth almost $600.
Around the country, people have been buying gift cards and prepaying for services to help their local small businesses stay afloat—or at least, sink a little more slowly. These businesses include restaurants, coffee shops, workout studios, barbershops, salons, independent movie theaters, dog-walking services, bookstores, and even dry cleaners. (Here’s a map, searchable by ZIP code, of small businesses affected by the coronavirus and links to their gift card offerings). These gift cards also offer the people buying them a feeling of hope that the world will indeed reopen: One customer addressed his online gift card purchase to a bookstore called Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts, “From Quarantined Steve, To Future Steve.”
It’ll certainly take more than a gift card purchase to keep your favorite establishment alive in the months ahead. Nahoum already had to furlough Melt’s three part-time employees, and she worries about the 21 massage therapists who work for her as independent contractors. It’s unclear how much these therapists will benefit from federal coronavirus relief plans, and with their other private practices closed, they have no income. Nahoum isn’t sure how many months Melt can survive, but the donations are helping a little, for now. —Rachael Allen
Teach Neighborhood Kids a New Skill
With school closed, spring break plans canceled, and a “stay-at-home” order in effect, the children of Philadelphia have a lot of free time on their hands. But there’s an hour a day we can count on our 10-year-old being glued to her screen, and not because she’s watching episodes of Bunk’d. Pandemic Free School is a virtual classroom convened via Zoom where neighborhood parents teach neighborhood children, mostly between the ages of 10 and 12, about—well, just about anything. Michael Froehlich, the West Philadelphia lawyer who got the ball rolling in our community, started with a session on how to file a lawsuit. The classes since have included brief lessons in basic French and Spanish, a class on how animals fight, and an introduction to meditation. Earlier this week, I taught one on how to solve a crossword puzzle.
With two dozen children getting the hang of video conferencing, the first Pandemic Free School lesson was a bit chaotic. (It was lightly surreal to hear “Can someone please mute?,” so familiar from my own work-from-home meetings, in such a radically different context.) But subsequent sessions have been capped at an audience of 10, and the daily sessions have grown from one to three, coordinated via Google doc. (For adults hoping to teach, the next open slots are more than a week out.) Limiting the size of the virtual classroom makes the classes more manageable, but more importantly, it allows the students to communicate with one another without it turning into a free-for-all. “I’d estimate it’s 30 percent learning something new and 70 percent interacting with other kids,” Froehlich told me. As in a real grade school, the friendships are as important as the curriculum. It’s a lifeline for a community stretched thin by social distancing and a godsend for parents desperate for some alone time. —Sam Adams
Run Errands for Neighbors
Beyond formal programs like Meals on Wheels, if you know someone who is elderly or immunocompromised, or even just stretched thin with the current chaos, you can reach out to them personally to see if you can help out with deliveries or other small tasks. This template created by John Paul Snead at the Table Church in D.C. is a good place to start. Fill it in with your name and contact information, and leave a copy where your neighbor can see it. Whatever you do, make sure to hand off items at a distance (such as by leaving them outside their home), and sanitize your hands as much as you can while you’re doing it. —Molly Olmstead
Buy Books (and Totes!)
Our college town has a small independent bookstore, the Little Professor Book Center, where, in better days, my daughter liked to go to read every Berenstain Bears story in the children’s section. Walking by on the empty street last week, I saw a sign in the store’s window indicating that—like many bookstores around the country—the store is currently offering free delivery of any books ordered. I really, really don’t want the Little Professor to close, so I called to place an order for a few Babar books.
How else can you protect your local indie bookstores? “Everything is helpful, from immediate benefits such as purchasing gift cards and gift items, to helping promote the business online,” the Little Professor’s owner, Nick Polsinelli, told me via email. If you have more wealth to spare and want to direct it toward bookstores, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation is directly supporting bookstore workers with money for household bills and medical expenses, and you can donate to that effort.
On a smaller scale, Electric Literature’s Instagram account has a Stories highlight collecting examples of bookstore merch sold online. (It is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody does a tote like a bookstore.) And Libro.fm, an audiobook service that works with independent bookstores, is offering a deal on new memberships, with all proceeds from the drive to go to indie shops.
But Polsinelli also told me he was worried that small businesses like his store might get a lot of support now, only to see it fade later. “I would hate to see everyone get galvanized and excited in the next few weeks, only to forget businesses two months from now and think that everything should be fixed by then,” he wrote. “Sadly, it won’t be.” I made some Google Calendar notes to self: Buy more books, on April 1, April 15, May 1, May 15 … —Rebecca Onion
Help a Stranded College Student With Rent
Colleges across the country have shuttered their campuses, leaving many students scrambling to travel home or find new housing. Last-minute plane tickets and spare rooms can get expensive quickly, atop the fact that many students are losing their on-campus or local employment. To help low-income students, alumni and peers are crowdfunding money and offering other forms of support to help offset the costs.
For example, after Davidson College announced that it would be shifting to remote learning earlier this month, the alumni office quickly created a Google Doc to organize aid. “Alumni started reaching out—and parents—pretty much immediately,” said Marya Howell, Davidson’s director of alumni and family engagement. The document has a place for students to request help, and another for alumni to offer specific forms of assistance, which so far has included airline miles, housing, food, cars, and remote jobs and internships.
At other universities, volunteers are stepping up without formal institutional support. A group of Harvard alumni raised $64,920 through individual donations over 12 days. Tufts students and staff have formed Tufts Mutual Aid to mobilize resources and information for members of the university community during the pandemic. At some institutions, such as the University of Virginia, student councils are directing the aid efforts.
If you want to assist college students, check if your school’s alumni community has started or shared a grassroots effort. A number of colleges are taking donations specifically for emergency assistance funds, but as a GoFundMe hoping to raise $950,000 for Wesleyan students points out, administrations can be restrictive compared with community-driven relief in how they give out money to students. —Chloe Hadavas
Start a Neighborhood Stash of Food Staples
If you spend a lot of time walking around a residential neighborhood, you might already be familiar with the concept of the Little Free Library: mailbox-like structures with friendly signs offering you to swap or take a book, for free. (You can sometimes locate them via crowdsourced maps or in Facebook groups.) Recently, owners of Little Free Libraries have begun modifying them for coronavirus times by replacing the supply of books with canned food and the like, turning them into little free pantries.
Kathy Koch, a Little Free Library owner in a suburb of Chicago, said that since she converted hers last week, at least one or two people seemed to have stopped by each night to take some nonperishables. Not knowing who will benefit from the pantry is part of its point: Some people might feel more comfortable taking things if they can be fully anonymous. The little free pantry may be less useful in scale than donating to and volunteering at a food bank, but it deserves points for making the concept hyperlocal and for being charming. There’s also value in providing neighbors with a serendipitous essential or two when we’re all trying to minimize our trips to the grocery store.
If you have access to a Little Free Library, consider filling it with peanut butter, tuna, oatmeal, soup, pasta sauce, and pet food (this last one is very popular at her pantry, Koch said). You can encourage people on your street to help it stay stocked, and you can put out extra bins if the neighbors’ generosity exceeds the space you’re working with. For those who want to start one, you can shop for official ones on the Little Free Library website. If you have some spare lumber, it seems doable to build one yourself—they’re basically just boxes—as a quarantine project. —Molly Olmstead
Attend a Concert
I wound down from work on Tuesday by watching one of my favorite musicians play live, from his couch. Josh Ritter held the first in what will (hopefully) be an ongoing series he’s calling the Silo Sessions, which he streamed on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook. Listening to Ritter was familiar and soothing, which was good; It is hard to help others if you are personally losing it. Afterward, I sent the equivalent of an overpriced concert beer to his Venmo, where he’s collecting money to send to Win NYC, an organization that provides emergency shelter for women and kids in New York.
Many musicians are bringing their acts online to raise money. For example, an ongoing series called Together at Home, which has featured artists like Chris Martin and Camila Cabello, encourages viewers to donate to a fundraiser for the World Health Organization. Billboard has a guide to artists streaming online, and Slate has rounded up a few, too, but it’s worth searching for your favorite artists on social media—you might be surprised. If an isolation concert doesn’t come with a formal callout for donations, pick a cause of your own to send a few dollars to. Fill up your calendar with upcoming “shows”: It will give you some breaks to look forward to, and it’s an easy way to remind yourself to give what you can on a regular basis. —Shannon Palus
Update, March 27, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify the best way to leave your neighbors a note that you’re willing to run errands for them.