How to be a Decent Person During a Pandemic

The covid-19 pandemic is a fact. While different countries have adopted different mitigation or containment strategies, there are also things we can do as individuals to help make the effects less terrible. So how do we act in accordance with the common good at a time like this? What do altruistic deeds look like when a lot of things we traditionally think of as prosocial are turned upside down?

1. Social distancing. Yes, you’ve heard it by now, but it really can’t be stressed enough. The virus is transmitted from person to person and requires physical proximity to make the jump. Decreasing the number of daily contacts one has that are sufficient for disease transmission is the number one and by far most powerful thing one can do to decrease the rate at which the virus can spread. It doesn’t have to mean locking yourself in your apartment indefinitely, but it does mean staying at a safe distance from other people as much as possible. BUT, do keep in mind that this is not necessarily about protecting you specifically – yes, if you are at risk, you will avoid getting sick by staying physically isolated from other people for the duration of the epidemic. However, since this group of people is a minority, the vast majority of the total spread in the population is going to be among people who will only get minor symptoms – who will then transfer it to the vulnerable. You are a rock in a stream, and you want to avoid being the rock that the virus steps on when it tries to get to the other side, where the vulnerable people are. When you’re engaging in social distancing, you are making sure that you are not one of those rocks in its path – and you may be saving someone’s life down the line. It goes against every instinct we have about helping, but in this case, doing nothing (literally) is one of the most helpful things you can do.

2. Be grateful and encouraging to others who are social distancing. Humans like expressing their affection and gratitude in physical ways – we enjoy proximity, hugging, shaking hands etc. In a situation like this, we need to shift gears: when others are avoiding us, they are not being jerks. They are being good, altruistic citizens. See someone (even a stranger) keeping their distance to you in public? Don’t be offended. Give them a thumbs up and a smile (from afar of course)! Are your friends cancelling social events? Send them a message of encouragement and thank them for being self-sacrificing in a difficult situation.

3. Call your grandma. Being isolated from others is hard. It can in fact be incredibly psychologically taxing, even when it’s voluntary. People in risk groups who isolate properly will be at increased risk for depression and anxiety and sometimes even post-traumatic symptoms. Staying physically isolated from each other for a certain duration of time does not have to mean being alone, however – particularly in our age of digital connectedness. Yes, it is a poor substitute for a hug, but it can be a lifesafer. Keep regular contact with each other, especially friends, family and distant relatives who might be living alone. Not just to check on each other, but to hang out in an different way!

4. Help out if you can. Are there people in your residential building or elsewhere that need to stay in complete isolation? Is there anything you can help out with – like getting groceries or running errands? Put up a note with your number and offer to help out. Groceries can be left by the door without meeting face to face, and nowadays you generally won’t have to deal with actual cash changing hands.

4. Keep spending – on certain things. The economic impact of an event like this is going to be severe. It will also disproportionally affect people working in businesses that already have small margins. As we stop visiting restaurants, coffee places, theatres, concert venues, hair dressers and other similar establishments, a lot of them will inevitably very quickly go out of business. Is there any way you can keep consuming their goods without being there in person? Perhaps you can start ordering food delivery to your home from your favorite restaurants (provided that you trust their hygienic routines of course). If you have tickets for events in the coming months – consider letting the bill slide when they inevitably get cancelled. Do your favorite musicians, stand-up comedians or local theatres have Patreon accounts or other means of gathering voluntary contributions? Consider donating a bit more than usual when their other revenue streams quickly dry up. In short: think carefully if there is anything you can do to make sure that these small businesses, creators or what have you still remain operational when this is over. It’s not gonna cost you more.

5. Buy supplies in moderation. …while doing number 4, remember not to over-buy things like toilet paper, sanitizer or canned goods. Yes, it can be good to have a decent supply of things at home, but the types of hoarding behavior often observed at times likes this a) is not really helpful for yourself, since society will exist next week as well, and b) can cause temporary disruptions in supply chains that may delay delivery of certain goods to other people who also need them. Be a decent person and get yourself a decent amount of whatever you think you might actually need – but don’t participate in irrational hoarding.

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