A few weeks ago, back when the media was telling us coronavirus was China’s problem, a friend and I discussed the absence of a sense of community on Long Island. “It’s me and mine, that’s community here,” she said, describing the attitude. “You and yours handle your own.”
Never was that statement truer than in the cleaning-products aisles of Targets in Long Island and across the country last week. The morning after President Trump announced the European travel ban, I witnessed two people argue over the last package of Charmin toilet paper. It was a depressing scene, but I couldn’t quite blame them. I could even identify with them, sort of.
In the midst of crisis, communities become forged out of necessity.
It can be paralyzing to realize that no one is watching out for you. This fear becomes manifold when you have other mouths to feed or hands to disinfect. When you aren’t guaranteed health insurance should you get sick, why wouldn’t you worry about you and your own having extra Purell?
The compulsion to grab more than we need justifies our entitlement as a means of survival. This compulsion is grounded in capitalism, which, as an institution, breaks down community by advocating for competition and individualism.
Building and maintaining a community within a capitalist system demands time and energy — two things many people in the New York metro area simply cannot afford, especially as rent prices go up and the quality of public services goes down. We work so hard that we don’t have time to process just how alienated the process of scraping-by makes us.
A lack of community is not a recent problem, but it does become a critical one in the midst of a crisis. Remember the insanity of buying gas when Hurricane Sandy struck? Research suggests that the keys to community resilience during disasters are community connection and the presence of community-based organizations before disaster hits.
Watching my frantic neighbors shove each other around the toilet-paper aisle, it became impossible to ignore the question of whether any of the lessons we forcibly learned during Sandy had stuck.
Because we lack adequate leadership in our government, we take a risk if we don’t turn to me-first behaviors like stockpiling pasta and toilet paper. The fundamental problem is that stockpiling is wealth-exclusive. Consequently, the touting of stockpiling on social media — a fairly cringe-inducing demonstration of wealth at a moment when much of the population is vulnerable — isolates accordingly.
In spite of America being a country with huge amounts of wealth and technology, the “fittest” to survive remain those with the most disposable income.
Crisis distills the American Dream, puts on trial the belief that “making it” without asking for help from anyone, especially from the government, is attainable.
Mahum Siddiqui, a long-time resident of Long Island, sees it this way: “You’re weak for having to rely on others, so community-based help is seen as weakness, rather than a service that would benefit the greater good. It’s unAmerican to be vulnerable. You’re not pulling yourself up from the bootstraps if more than one hand is pulling on the strap.”
Shortly after New York declared the COVID-19 pandemic a state of emergency, Long Island Cares dispatched two food trucks to provide breakfasts for school children whose meals were provided by districts that were closed. My cousin posted on Facebook inviting other people in her building to donate their excess canned goods to an immunocompromised woman self-quarantining upstairs. Students across the country organized lists of resources to help housing-insecure and low-income students. Between the Twitter posts about the empty supermarket shelves, threads of gig workers’ Venmos and Paypals appeared as a means of crowdsourcing funds for their now-undetermined incomes.
In the midst of crisis, in the absence of stability, communities become forged out of necessity.
But we already know that these community efforts aren’t enough. It’s sort of like if you tried to put a bandage on someone’s papercut while their liver bleeds internally. Our efforts just don’t deal with the fundamental problem. Learning from the lessons disaster teaches us about the value of solidarity, we need leaders and pioneers who are willing to enact policies that foster community before the next crisis appears on the horizon.
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