Updated: Mar 13, 2020
We live on Bainbridge Island, just a 35-minute ferry ride west of Seattle, where we're 20 miles from Ground Zero of the US COVID-19 outbreak. Things escalated quickly just over a week ago, when Governor Jay Inslee declared a State of Emergency to help us confront the community spread of this disease. Within two hours of his announcement, our local grocery stores were empty of many household staples, from rubbing alcohol to cans of soup.
It is tempting to react to this pandemic by attempting to build a private fortress against the virus and the ills of the world. We are urging everyone to resist this embrace of scarcity thinking. Instead of stocking up on finite resources (think toilet paper), where "more for you, is less for me," we believe the better protection for all of us comes from a sharing mindset that focuses on the abundance we have as a community. When we shift our perspective and behavior this way, "more for you, is more for me," as author and scholar Charles Eisenstein puts it. What happened with masks is an example of how scarcity thinking endangers all of us. As masks were purchased in bulk by individuals for private stockpiles, the international supply was depleted, leaving health care professionals and sick people without the masks they need to protect themselves. When our first responders, hospital staff, and contagious people don't have masks, we all suffer. Putting our common good first, and sharing our resources where they are most needed, protects all of us.
As we're bracing for our state's "mandatory measures" for social distancing, we're also thinking about how we can play our interconnected strength into this scenario to reduce pressure on social services. The more we help each other with some basics, the more our public programs will have to focus on those who are sick or otherwise in urgent need. If we band together as neighbors, we can flatten the curve while lessening the economic hardship on individuals. In addition to looking after your own household's needs, this is the time to build upon local connections to look after our common welfare. The CDC's recent announcement that people over 60 or in any high risk category "should minimize trips to the store" and "stay close to home," got us thinking: Now that venturing out to buy things is literally bad for our health, buying nothing may actually save lives. Hear us out: Many of us can make a few tactical changes in our behavior - things that can be done from a safe social distance - to increase our overall community health and resiliency:
Our Own Caveat: There's a lot we don't know yet about the transmission of this SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19. We called our local public health hotline yesterday with our own questions about transmission of the virus via objects, and we urge each of you to do your own research. The CDC is the US national source, and each nation, state/province, and county/city also has people working hard to share reliable information that will protect all of us. If you test positive, please follow all recommendations from your medical team and public health officials. We each participate in sharing at our own risk, and we each need to make our own decisions about how to treat objects ranging from car keys and phones to groceries and gifts. And as always: Wash. Your. Hands.
GIVE - There are many forms of giving and this is a great time to explore all of them. If you're at low risk, you can offer to pick up and and deliver supplies to a neighbor at higher risk, without having direct physical contact. If you're sitting on a large supply of a useful household good that someone needs, offer some to neighbors without. If you have no surplus of goods, or are concerned about the transfer of items between people, you can offer your presence via calls, emails, texts, video chat, and social media to people who are facing social isolation alone. We are working on an "Adopt a Neighbor" program in our local Buy Nothing group, through which individuals in lower risk groups can pair up with someone in a higher risk group for help with all of the above, person-to-person, as each is comfortable and safe.
ASK - Here in the US, our society celebrates independence and autonomy. Many forces urge individuals to amass everything they need for themselves and to hold onto it, even at the expense of others. Gift economy culture, on the other hand, is built on the core assumption that there is enough to go around if we share what we have with each other. This sharing fosters relationships between us, and these relationships protect us, support us, provide for us, and make our communities more resilient in troubled times. Asking for what you want and need opens the door to assistance from your neighbors, and adds to this web of relationships. If you're one of the many whose paychecks are smaller or suddenly gone, please look to your neighbors for gifts of food and other items that will help you buy nothing, so you can stretch the funds you have for bills. There is no shame in asking. We will probably all need help of some sort to weather this pandemic.
RETHINK - The inexhaustible online lists of what to buy for pandemic preparedness can also serve as a guide for those of us who want or need to reuse what we already have in our homes. Many of us can't afford a three-week supply of everything needed to survive a social isolation period, so rethinking what we do have is a valuable approach. Stick this time-tested saying on your fridge as a guide: "Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without," and find ways to put this into practice. A quick Googling will reveal many Do It Yourself alternatives for a long list of common single-use items such as paper towels, household cleaners, and personal care products such as toothpaste, shampoo, and much more.
SHARE - If you find yourself with kids sent home from school for weeks, or with the need to create a work space you can telecommute from, ask to borrow the things you need. One of our neighbors just asked, resignedly, to borrow a small desk "as one of the worker bees who will be working from home (for who knows how long)" so that she doesn't "take over the kitchen table indefinitely." Another neighbor had the perfect small desk available, and loaning it out freed up space in her garage. Life goes on, even in a pandemic, so milestones like birthdays will happen. We can have each other's backs by sharing what we have in our homes to help celebrate these milestones - for example, we're loaning out a dishwasher-safe tea set for a birthday party next week. Other frequently loaned items include inflatable beds for homeward-bound college students, and all sorts of materials to make learning and working from home possible, ranging from puzzles and games to noise-cancelling headphones.
GRATITUDE - Some of us will be able to give, some will ask, and some will share. We can all express our gratitude. Fred Rogers famously reminded children to "look for the helpers" in times of crisis, and we adults can help support those who are helping by letting them know that we see them and appreciate their work to keep us all safe. Share your gratitude for the health care professionals, first responders, and public health workers; for the people whose jobs keep them in contact with the public; and for everyone in the community who is assisting others as an individual. Gratitude is the essential glue that binds us together, and we've found that gratitude begets more giving, asking, and sharing. Studies show that giving thanks makes us happier, and happier people are healthier people, too.
Act now to connect with the people living around you, to take stock of your shared abundance and make plans to safely distribute things as needed. This aid will be especially important for people who cannot access formal governmental assistance due to such things as immigration status. Whatever privilege and bounty you have, we implore you to use it for the collective good. Our neighborhoods benefit when we act from a giving, asking, and rethinking mindset, sharing freely with each other, making what we can't buy, fixing what's broken, and borrowing rather than purchasing new. With a "more for you, is more for me, and therefore more for us all" approach, we will come through this in better shape, both individually and as a whole.
Did you like this piece? We are Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, founders of the Buy Nothing Project and authors of The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan. Please preorder a copy of our book to help us continue our volunteer work to support this movement (and we'll send you a signed bookplate to show our gratitude)