With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic — and orders to practice “social distancing” to break the chain of transmission and save the lives of the most vulnerable — many Americans are taking an unexpected spring break, cooped up in their own homes and apartments.
The crisis is acute. Seattle has been on lockdown for weeks, and the San Francisco Bay Area received a shelter-in-place order Monday. New York is warning of a deficit of thousands of ICU beds as hospitals brace for a wave of critically ill patients. As the United States scrambles to avoid the fate of Italy, where doctors don’t have enough ventilators to provide support to sick people gasping for air, daily life has been upended.
Across the country, bars and restaurants are closing, joining shuttered concert venues, sports arenas, and amusement parks. And whether you’re newly laid off, working from home, or trying to balance being a parent and your child’s substitute teacher, let’s face it, you’ve got some extra, anxiety-prone hours on your hands. Instead of filling that void with Disney+ and day drinking (the new “Netflix and Chill”?), here are some civic-minded actions you can take to escape the tedium of this morbid moment and focus on the promise of the future — for all of us.
1) Respond to the Census
The 2020 census is now underway. The once-every-10-years count may seem dull, but it is one of the most vital tools in our democracy. The final count determines how trillions of federal dollars are allocated around the different communities in the country, as well as the number of congressional seats allotted to each state. The census is a count of all persons in the country — so don’t let your immigration status be a barrier. If you’re here, you count. The good news is that you can fill out the form for your household online at my2020census.gov right now; just plug in your address and get started. The bad news for those seeking an escape is that it only takes a few minutes to complete the questionnaire.
2) Register to Vote
Are you registered to vote? (You can check on your status using this Am I Registered to Vote? checker.) If you’re not registered you can enfranchise yourself at Vote.gov — a federal site that will connect you online to own state’s voter-registration process. Laws vary by state, but if you’re able to, consider signing up for an absentee ballot which will allow you to vote by mail. The coronavirus quarantine is showing how easily Election Day can be disrupted, so voting by mail offers a failsafe. And even without a pandemic virus loose in America, voting in person can contribute to long lines that dissuade others from voting. Registering absentee may help enfranchise someone else by speeding up in-person voting for others. Once you’re registered, touch base with your friends and family, in particular those who live in swing states, and help get them signed up too. You might also tweet your support for this new bill that would ensure every American the right to a vote-by-mail ballot and expand early voting across the country.
3) Contact Your Member of Congress
We should all be practicing social distancing to “flatten the curve” to keep coronavirus cases from overwhelming the hospitals — risking their ability to not only help those affected by COVID-19 but to also attend to the general public and the baseline cases of broken bones, heart attacks, and other critical illnesses. The paradox of this crisis is that we are all acting together to slow down the spread of the disease, prolonging the time that we will be living with its impacts. It speaks well of our national character that we’re willing to sacrifice to protect our most vulnerable. But in this time of shared sacrifice, the government has a roll to play to cushion the economic blow.
You can leave your big-government/small-government priors at the door: This isn’t a financial crisis brought about by reckless speculation. This isn’t a natural part of the business cycle. There’s no moral hazard in the government stepping in to keep businesses solvent and industries from being flattened while we all work to lessen the lethality of this pandemic. And when interest rates are essentially zero, the money borrowed today to bridge us though this terrible moment won’t crimp future growth. (And if you don’t trust me on this, listen to George W. Bush’s former top economic adviser, who writes: “There are times to worry about the growing government debt. This is not one of them.”)
The speed and efficacy of the federal response will be determined by the actions taken by congress in the coming days. The cruise-ship and casino industries and their lobbyists are already lobbying the feds for bailouts. You should let your representative know how this crisis is affecting your family — and demand that the government help you keep your rent or mortgage paid and food on your table until you’re back to work and your kids are back at school.
What’s needed right now is not only a one-time check, according to a U.C. Berkeley economist who helped shape Elizabeth Warren’s agenda — its something like this:
4) Check in on Your Neighbor
For many, the order to practice social distancing is a source of boredom and frustration. For others, it’s a question of life or death. No one is immune from the coronavirus, but if you’re young and healthy, the odds are good you’ll get over COVID-19 if you come down with it. For an older or immune-suppressed friend, colleague, or neighbor, the consequences are potentially dire. If you’re fortunate enough to fall in the first category, you can make a difference in the lives of those who are in the latter. Do you know a vulnerable person down the hall or down the street? Ask (via text or through a closed door) if you can bring them a bag of groceries, run a trip to the pharmacy, walk their pet, or pick up their takeout.
5) Tip Well and Consider Paying for Regular Services You’re Skipping
This is an economically precarious moment for everyone. If you’re still employed, count yourself fortunate. But working from home may be changing your needs. Do you usually hire a dog walker? Does someone come to clean your house? Even if you’re canceling these services for the time that you’re homebound, consider continuing to pay these service-providers at least a percentage of what you’d normally spend. The knock-on effects of the economy are hard for everyone, and many in the gig- and hustle-based economy don’t have a safety net. Similarly, even if you’re picking up takeout instead of dining out, consider tipping the full 20 percent. These people are literally risking their well-being to keep you fed.
6) Follow the Orders and Advice of Local Officials
The tactics for fighting cornonavirus are evolving by the day — and even by the hour. Keep informed of your community’s recommended restrictions and observe them. If your local or state leaders are in denial, listen to a governor you respect. Govs. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) have been among the most aggressive in responding to this crisis, as they both lead states with a mix of urban and rural areas. Pay attention to the hard truths they’re telling.
We’re a country of stubborn individuals, and an otherwise-healthy disrespect for authority is baked into our cultural DNA. But this is not a time to be a maverick. This is a time to put others first. Social distancing won’t be perfect, but it can be very effective. The hard work of keeping in isolation will be undermined, however, if people treat this shutdown as spring break — as happened in Italy, where people spread the virus by taking to beaches and ski resorts and public squares — exacerbating the crisis, causing the hospital system to be overrun and the country to be put on lockdown.
7) Be a Good Patient
Unless you’re in a vulnerable population, don’t freak out if you do get sick. You will have a burning desire to know if you’ve got the coronavirus, but you may have to sit with that.
As Oregon’s chief medical officer for Health Security, Preparedness and Response Program told Rolling Stone: “If people are sick, but they’re not that sick — they’re basically feeling OK even though they’re ill — those people do not necessarily have to go to see a health care provider.” Why? As a Columbia University virologist explained to Rolling Stone: “Ultimately there’s nothing that we can really do for people until they become severely ill — and then it’s to provide supportive care for them. There’s a lot of people in this country who are in higher-risk groups. Make sure that you’re thinking of those people before you demand a test or a hospital bed, or just more attention because you’re scared.”
If you’re sick and concerned about your well-being, please do contact your doctor or advice nurse. They can often advise you remotely about when to seek in-person care, and arrange for precautions if you need to be seen. But an influx of the “worried well” at the emergency room is a hazard to everyone. Save the scarce resources of testing kits and doctor time for those who need supportive care to stay alive. Take it from a top health official in New York:
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