How Do We Build Community When We Can’t Be Near Each Other? (with UB Conflict Scholars and Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos)

This is the fourth part of a series. Go to Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3.

Confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maryland hit 580 on Thursday, and are climbing rapidly. Baltimore City has 72 confirmed cases, compared to just one last Tuesday. And experts say the real number is far higher than the official count. If you’re reading this even a day or two late, these numbers will likely be wildly out of date.

Maryland schools will now be closed an extra month, through April 24. That presents the challenge of how to educate children remotely in a city where many people have limited access to technology, which school officials will be wrestling with in the coming days.

Hope mosaic

To address another major challenge, some have called on the mayor to release funds in order to house Baltimore’s thousands of homeless people. Though the proposed location, the downtown Hilton, has since been designated a field hospital, along with the Convention Center.

The BIG Baltimore Kite Fest that would have taken place on Saturday is canceled, of course. But you can still buy a kite from Creative Alliance if you want to get outside and do something. (Just keep your distance from each other.) And Open Works has been recruiting volunteers with 3D printers to address the shortage of protective equipment in hospitals.

Continuing the conversation about how we build community when we can’t be near each other, I talked to conflict scholars at the University of Baltimore and Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos from Medicine for the Greater Good at Johns Hopkins. Here’s what they said…

University of Baltimore Conflict Scholars

I was on a video conference call last weekend with Professor Sarah Federman at the University of Baltimore and some students in the school’s Negotiation and Conflict Management program. (Disclosure: I am one of those students.) We discussed how we think about community in a time like this.

One student, Joe, shared the story of a man during a major economic downturn who responded by getting out his checkbook and fulfilling all his financial pledges to the community. When his son asked him why he would do such a thing, he responded that he didn’t know if he would always have the money to give. So he might as well give now while he still can.

That act of giving is actually one way of exercising some control in a chaotic situation. When we give to others, we build our own resilience. So as the pandemic has been hitting Maryland and taxing healthcare professionals, Joe reached out to a friend who heads an emergency room in the area. He arranged to have a stack of pizzas delivered to the hospital for all the workers there.

“This is a little thing,” he said. “It’s just a way of making people feel appreciated.”

Joe said he’s still feeling the effects of this crisis, and he’s been taking moments for deep breathing and meditation to relax. But small gestures of appreciation for others can be therapeutic. “I think resiliency can be a muscle that we can … make stronger in these moments,” he said.

Another student, Shawn, emphasized the benefits of supporting small restaurants when we order delivery. National chains, he said, “can afford to be closed down a little bit longer than your pizza place at the corner.”

He also believed neighborhoods, or even individual blocks, should have their own online discussion groups. Some of those groups exist, and a number of Baltimore neighborhoods have started quarantine response teams online. But it’s a challenge getting a block or group of blocks to communicate efficiently, and finding ways to address that might be worthwhile, both during this crisis and for the future.

Professor Federman is in Montreal right now, on the other side of the closed border between the U.S. and Canada. But she has found ways to contribute to the community in Baltimore. She told the doctors in her building that they could help themselves to all the rubber gloves that were in her apartment. She let one elderly neighbor take the food that was in her fridge. And she told another neighbor he could even stay in her apartment when he and his wife are “driving each other crazy.”

As the virus began to spread, Professor Federman made a list of all the people she knows who might be in need. Now she periodically works her way through it, calling to check up on people.

As for Montreal, where she’s staying, “I don’t really understand this place,” so she has trouble finding ways to serve. But she’s been wiping down doors and elevator buttons when she can.

Above all, she said, she tries to share knowledge when she can. If she gets valuable information from people she knows who are connected to FEMA or Homeland Security, for example, she makes sure her students and other people in her life know too.

“I want to make sure I’m not hoarding that knowledge,” she said. “Disenfranchisement works through lines of knowledge.”

Which provides a nice transition to my next conversation…

Medicine for the Greater Good

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, or Dr. G, is the co-founder and co-director of Medicine for the Greater Good, a program operating out of Hopkins Bayview that focuses on the intersection between community and health. To effectively care for patients,  Dr. G has said, “you must know their community.”

That’s true now more than ever, he told me. When health professionals give us guidelines about social distancing, for example, that creates greater challenges in certain communities than others. In shared living spaces, social distancing is logistically difficult. And in some housing units designed for people with mental health challenges, the proximity between residents is meant to be therapeutic. Social distancing could have serious negative consequences.

Dr. G said health professionals need to be take these challenges into account and help communities implement health guidelines. When hospitals get overcrowded with patients because one-size-fits-all guidelines don’t fit a particular community, it means there has already been a failure in the healthcare system.

That’s why, around the time coronavirus was reaching Maryland, Dr. G reached out to community representatives and organized a twice-weekly conference call. Every Monday and Friday, he and other health experts provide actionable information about the pandemic and listen to the community’s challenges and successes.

When he started the first call, there were 22 people on the line. By the end, there were 103. And by the end of the second call, more than 200 people overall had joined in.

A pandemic, Dr. G said, really tests how strong the relationship is between healthcare professionals and the community. And it reaffirms the value of working in the community, as it could mean the difference between overflowing hospitals and a relatively manageable crisis.

At a time like this, he said, we should recognize that community has always been about more than being physically close to each other. People have been using books and other media to create community across great distances for much of human history. And as we face the threat of a global pandemic, community doesn’t just mean our neighborhood, our city, our race or creed. The emphasis right now has to be on the “community of humanity.”

So even as we keep our distance from our neighbors, Dr. G said, we can look around the world and say, “We’re all in this together.”

To share your own thoughts about how we build community while keeping social distance, email interactionbaltimore@gmail.com.

Go to Part 5.