Starting in late February, a disaster felt imminent, but it was difficult to discern exactly what type of disaster it might be. Hand sanitizer and bleach wipes were sold out on Amazon, implying some kind of countrywide mass-cleaning spree. On the Los Angeles subway, dozens of people wore the masks people wear to protect themselves from wildfire smoke, except there was no fire—it was the wrong time of year. In the pharmacy department at my local Target, hardly any other types of medications were touched, but the shelves that usually held cold and flu medicine looked as if they’d been vaporized.
When asked at a February 26 press conference about the perceived threat of Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus currently spreading across the globe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s head of immunization and respiratory disease Dr. Nancy Messonnier relayed what she’d told her children that morning: “While I didn’t think they were at risk right now, we as a family ought to be preparing for significant disruption to our lives.”
Quarantine. Isolation. Social distancing. The recommendations sound scary. But after spending the past year preparing my own young children for a major earthquake that’s 93 percent certain to strike my city in the next three decades, what I know to be true is that preparing your home for disaster doesn’t mean shutting yourself in—it means reaching out.
Even before this coronavirus was declared a pandemic, the disruption had already begun. Financial markets had their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis. Major public events were postponed or canceled. Corporations issued travel restrictions. In China, where private cars were banned from entire cities and families were quarantined for up to a month, the economic impact was demonstrated by a 25 percent drop in carbon emissions and a virtual elimination of air pollution in recent weeks.
Then, during the second week of March, a series of U.S. events occurred in quick succession. Dozens of cities, counties, and states declared states of emergency. Schools and universities were closed across the country. California urged the cancellation of public gatherings over 250 people. Public health experts urged those most at-risk for serious complications—especially older adults and those with compromised immunity—stay home. Following social distancing recommendations like this could be our best tool for saving lives.
In the face of a quickly advancing threat, Americans are spending their weekends stocking our pantries. But what we should also be doing now is opening our front doors to take stock of our communities.
Over a week of record-high temperatures and humidity during the summer of 1995, Chicago’s medical facilities became overwhelmed by people seeking treatment for heat-related illnesses. In the end, one of the deadliest heat waves in Midwest history killed 739 Chicagoans. As city leaders struggled to understand why so many people died, the epidemiology revealed some surprising findings, as told in Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg, which has been adapted into the new PBS documentary Cooked: Survival by Zip Code.
While it would seem that most heat-related deaths would be related to income and infrastructure—having access to a well-insulated home with working air-conditioning, for example—it was discovered that social structures were just as important when determining who survived. People who lived alone or who didn’t have contact with people who lived nearby were more likely to die. Older women, even ones who were considered to be more physically vulnerable, ended up surviving at higher rates because of the nature of their relationships with each other. Older men, who did not have the same types of social connections, died at more than twice the rate of older women.
What should motivate us to prepare for the new coronavirus is not fear of our own personal risk, argues Zeynep Tufekci at Scientific American. “You should prepare because your neighbors need you to prepare—especially your elderly neighbors, your neighbors who work at hospitals, your neighbors with chronic illnesses, and your neighbors who may not have the means or the time to prepare because of lack of resources or time.”
Even the CDC recommends making a community coronavirus plan. But in the U.S., the concept of “preparing” is seen not as making sacrifices for the greater good, but rather as an endeavor that’s almost universally individualistic. Just the looming threat of an emergency sets off visions of a very specific chain of events where we double-park our SUVs outside Costco, fight someone over the last pallet of toilet paper, then lock ourselves in our basements with enough batteries to keep our LED headlamps illuminated for a decade.
And while your home should absolutely have a stockpile of nonperishable food items—FEMA recommends up to two weeks’ worth, plus enough water and other supplies ranging from medication to pet food to diapers—even when the official health recommendation is quarantine, you will not survive a disaster alone.
Data on the new coronavirus claims 80 percent of cases are mild, which is also true for most disasters. Most people will not lose their lives in heat waves, or lose their homes to flooding in a hurricane. The damage wrought by disasters might seem indiscriminate, but communities that are already the most marginalized—the people who are already housing insecure or experiencing long-term health issues—are most likely to be severely impacted. They will need to rely on a society held together by everyone else.
When I interviewed seismologist Lucy Jones about her book The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them), she wouldn’t tell me what to put in an earthquake emergency kit. Because it’s not about what you have stocked up in your garage—it’s about knowing what your neighbors have in their garage, and who you can go to if your garage is gone.
“What really matters is our communities,” she said. “Go to your neighbors, go to your church, your school, and say, ‘How do we work together?’”
My city offers a free disaster preparedness workshop for neighborhoods conducted by emergency management professionals. After completing the workshop last summer over a potluck breakfast, we have an inventory of who on our block has medical training, and who has critical supplies like a chainsaw or a generator. But more importantly, just going through the process brought our neighbors together in person so now we know which households might need extra help after an emergency.
Quarantine complicates that, of course. If the order is to self-isolate for a month, you may not be offering help in person. But if your network is set up, smartphones and social media can keep those social connections intact.
It doesn’t need to be frightening or stressful to prepare for this. In the age of climate change, it’s a critical part of our new reality. Whether it’s a potential public health threat like a coronavirus outbreak, or an inevitable disaster like an earthquake, strengthening our social support network is important for all kinds of emergencies—and it’s the only way we’ll survive the impending challenges of the climate crisis.
“To cope with these uncertainties, we have to turn preparation for survival into the new normal,” wrote my very smart friend Annalee Newitz, author of the book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. “Instead of freaking ourselves out with unimaginably dark scenarios, we need to plan for a difficult future every day.”
Most of the things I’m doing to get ready aren’t about me. I’ve reached out to a few older neighbors to make sure they have everything they need (turns out they’re better prepared than I am). I pestered a few people to get flu shots. I made an emergency contact sheet with relevant nearby resources. And yes, I added a few extra items to our weekly shopping list—not masks—and had them delivered using our local grocery store’s delivery service. Nothing was unavailable or sold out—and I didn’t have to fight anyone for toilet paper.
Now that the disruption of daily life is certain for much of the country, you can make a plan with your employer for how you can work from home. Talk with another family on your block to compare child care strategies if schools end up being closed. Donate goods to local homeless service providers to help protect our most vulnerable residents. Set up a group text with your neighbors now so you can see if one of them has something you might need later instead of putting undue stress on delivery workers—who will be facing the same issues as you are, but may not get paid if they can’t work.
Who will you be checking in on? Who will check in on you?
There are a lot of things you could do today to help alleviate the burden on your immediate community. But as far as advice goes, this is really the best I’ve come across:
One possible bit of coronavirus prep: make and freeze two casseroles now.— Leah Libresco Sargeant (@LeahLibresco) February 27, 2020
Eat one when you’re sick.
Drop the other off outside your neighbor’s door when they’re sick.
Instead of hiding in a crawlspace and stacking towers of canned vegetables around you to somehow ward off the inevitable, find a can opener, open up that cream of mushroom soup, and use it in your favorite casserole recipe to provide essential nourishment to the people around you who might need it, when they’ll need it most.
And before, during, and after you make the casserole, you should wash your hands, and do it right. It’s the best way to protect yourself and others.