We must include local communities in the response to coronavirus

Communities play an essential role in reducing the impact of disasters. In Australia, we saw this in the recent unprecedented bushfires, when neighbours helped each other to battle flames, evacuate the vulnerable, and feed and shelter the displaced. Over 90% of firefighters were community-based volunteers.

But is there a role for local community action in responding to the coronavirus pandemic? Statements of government officials and discussions in the media would suggest not. The messaging has focused mainly on describing national-level efforts to scale up the capacity of hospitals and healthcare systems to meet the anticipated huge spike in demand, and on encouraging individuals to thoroughly wash their hands and not engage in panic-buying of face masks and other supplies. Any mention of local community action is conspicuously absent.

Actually, it’s more than absent: it’s implicitly being discouraged. Government planning for important ‘social distancing’ measures to slow the spread of the pandemic, such as prohibiting community gatherings, closing schools and quarantining suspected cases, is inadvertently disempowering local communities. It sends the subliminal message that ‘community’ itself is a threat. And that idea is being reinforced by the growing public awareness that people infected with coronavirus can be contagious before they exhibit symptoms. In these circumstances, how can we trust even our closest neighbours?

It might be bearable to sacrifice community action for a short period in order to slow infection rates if the government were able to provide additional health support. However, this seems unlikely. Most analysis suggests that even in a moderately severe pandemic, our healthcare system will be overwhelmed. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Australians will need to self-isolate in their homes while they recover from the illness or help loved ones recover.

This is a recipe for despair on an unprecedented scale, but the impact will be reduced in local communities that have taken the initiative to prepare for the pandemic.

Some weeks ago, our neighbourhood in Canberra got together to discuss the emerging pandemic and how we could support each other through the challenges ahead. Many of our neighbours are over 55 and therefore at higher risk of complications and death from the virus. Some live alone. Others look after children or grandchildren. All came to the meeting because they were deeply concerned and wanted to share their concerns with their neighbours. We were also searching for ways to interrupt the growing sense of isolation that seems intrinsic to this crisis.

We reviewed the official advice about how to prevent contagion and explored ways we could prepare for being confined to our homes and for treating the illness. We agreed that we would circulate mobile phone numbers and use a community mailing list to keep each other informed if any of us contracted or suspected we had contracted the virus.

We would also use the mailing list to request help if any of us who were isolated at home ran out of food or other essentials, so that neighbours could assist by dropping off what was required. We agreed we would regularly communicate with each other about developments during the pandemic and use our community network to share questions we were having trouble answering.

Psychologists point out that people in threatening situations feel less stress and fear when they affiliate with others experiencing similar emotions. That was certainly our experience at the end of our two-hour discussion. Simply sharing our thoughts and concerns was hugely therapeutic. That, combined with the measures we had agreed to take, meant that we left the meeting feeling that some of the load had been lifted and more confident in our ability to meet the serious challenges that lie ahead.

Unfortunately, given how rapidly the virus is spreading in Australia, other local communities may now need to meet virtually, rather than face to face, to prepare their plans. But most are unlikely to do so without strong encouragement, support and guidance from governments at all levels. As a starting point, it would be useful for governments to begin emphasising that in a pandemic social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation.