Photo Credit: Aliaksandra Post/Shutterstock.com
You probably heard this slogan throughout the pandemic – “We’re all in this together.”
But is that really true? After all, the affluent and the young had a radically different experience of the pandemic than the poor and elderly. And how do we help ourselves when we are experiencing an extraordinary level of stress and isolation?
There is much disaster literature that links voluntarism, social capital, and resilience. It boils down to this: during a crisis, the people who cope best are those who help others.
As Rebecca Solnit argues in A Paradise Built in Hell, it is a paradox of the human condition that its moments of unity and love appear only at the moments of greatest suffering and sacrifice. However, Steffen and Fothergill in a 2009 study of voluntarism after 9/11 found that while ‘disaster volunteering’ was initially spontaneous or episodic, it eventually led to a more continuous engagement in volunteering activities.
I was already volunteering at the soup kitchen in my neighborhood when the pandemic hit. Before the pandemic, we used to provide a sit-down meal every Monday to around 65 to 75 people, part of the “Open Door” Soup Kitchen and Grocery Bag Program Ministry at the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Allston, MA. We receive donations from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, among others, which we then sort ourselves and bag. We also do the cooking on-site. When state-ordered restrictions took effect, we had to resort to hot meals in “to go” boxes, along with the usual bags of groceries. At the peak of the pandemic in 2020, we were serving around 170 to 180 meals a day – an almost threefold increase which happened in a matter of a few months.
I am also a trained and certified volunteer with the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) – a national network of volunteers, organized locally to improve the health and safety of their communities.
This program has an 18-year long history and suggests one way in which the spontaneous efforts of ordinary citizens to help out can be institutionalized. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was an overwhelming desire of ordinary citizens to help in some way with the response efforts. Medical, public health, and laypeople rushed to volunteer their services; however, there was no way to integrate volunteers into coordinated response efforts and individuals could not be verified and credentialed on-site.
As a result, then President Bush – like his father, a conservative Republican keen to encourage volunteerism in place of big government – established the Citizen Corps, the parent organization for MRC.
Before the pandemic, the MRC network comprised approximately 200,000 volunteers in roughly 800 community-based units located throughout the U.S. That number has since changed dramatically, as the pandemic has seen an unprecedented flood of people wanting to get credentialed and trained to become part of MRC. In an official letter from November 2020, Esmeralda Pereira, Director of the MRC Program, stated that more than 400 MRC units nationwide have responded to fight COVID-19 across the country, dedicating over 500,000 service hours up to that point, and counting.
As an MRC volunteer, I was activated in March 2020 for grocery deliveries to senior housing, low-income housing, and other immunocompromised people who were not able to go outside. During the months of March, April, June and July of 2020 I volunteered with MRC three times a week. I would drive to a food pantry, where another team of volunteers was bagging groceries and labeling them with names, phones, and addresses, receive my assignment, load up my car, then drive along my “route” and deliver about 30 bags staffed with the groceries that were requested individually. The delivery process was contact-less; I took the bags to the recipients’ doors, I left, then I called the recipients to let them know that it was safe to come out and get their deliveries.
During this time, I was touched by the experience in too many ways to count. I remember, for example, an old man who was always waiting for me every Tuesday outside of his apartment, even though he was told not to. We were at a safe distance, but he wanted to see me and thank me in person – he gave me the military salute more than once. Others, who did not pick up their phones when I called and I had to leave a message, would call me later in the day and give me heartfelt thanks. It was the most basic form of human interaction that I have ever experienced, these were strangers who were expressing their gratitude in a way that gave me meaning and purpose. We also received emails from our MRC Coordinator with quotes from the people we delivered groceries to, and I am including a few here.
“So happy. God Bless you and everyone for what you are doing. If there is a way to pay it forward, I’ll gladly do it”
“Just got it. Trying not to cry, but I have a smile. May the lord bless you and those that do the needful.”
Since July, I’ve been deactivated from that delivery program. But MRC continues its COVID-19 fighting efforts. Currently, volunteers are activated to assist local health departments and hospitals with vaccine distribution efforts.
Much of the scientific research on resilience — which is our ability to withstand adversity and bounce back — has shown that having a sense of purpose, and giving support to others, has a powerful impact on our physical health and psychological well-being. Resilient people are able to better manage negative emotions and experience more positive emotions; they experience increased emotion regulation and that, in turn, creates an increased sense of control. Research also suggests that people who have higher levels of “felt obligation” — which is a motivational state directed towards enhancing others’ welfare — cope better with their own life challenges. An orientation to helping others acts as a protective factor against losses in psychological well-being — something that has been especially important throughout this pandemic. Supporting others gives us a sense of purpose and helps buffer our bodies against the detrimental effects of stress.
In March 2020, just two days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed the first lockdown on Britain to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the government appealed for 250,000 people to help the National Health Service. The recruiting drive, which drew nearly twice its goal in less than 24 hours, had amassed an army of volunteers to help elderly people quarantined in their homes, as well as the beleaguered public health system, so much so, that it was forced to temporarily stop taking applicants so it could process the flood. In barely a week, the recruiting drive ended up with more than 750,000 people pitching in to help older and more vulnerable Britons by delivering food and medicine. Also, in addition to the national program, hundreds of community-based aid groups have sprung up around the country, enrolling tens of thousands of volunteers, in a stirring display of British national solidarity. This brought solace to Britons, and a sense of unity after three and a half years of bitter divisions over Brexit. For some older Britons, the volunteer army felt like a return to the fifties and a time when there was more interaction. During the lockdowns, they were not allowed to be with each other, but they said they did not feel alone, and they hoped this display of social capital will continue beyond the pandemic.
While I don’t believe that volunteer organizations can ever take the place of a strong government that is needed to tackle entrenched inequities and injustices, I too hope that we can learn the lessons of mutual aid. This way, in conjunction with the kinds of economic relief the government is now offering people, we can become more neighborly, and play a small part in healing our suffering communities.
Roxana Toma is Associate Professor of Social & Public Policy in the School for Graduate Studies at SUNY Empire State College.