There’s a lot of bleak news in the world right now. From the outbreak to massive unemployment to vulnerable people being separated from their loved ones – it can be easy to feel helpless.
But for those of us who are lucky enough to be healthy, and have time and resources available, there are also lots of practical ways we can help healthcare workers, our communities, and people we care about.
From making donations, to writing a diary, to reading a story online to your friends’ children – here are some simple, and sometimes surprising, things you can do.
1. Stay home – or follow local social distancing guidelines
This one’s obvious – but if you’re living in a place with physical distancing guidelines, make sure you follow them. You’ll be doing your bit to keep infection numbers down – particularly since some carriers don’t show symptoms – and hence reduce the burden on healthcare providers.
2. Register to donate blood
In many countries, blood banks saw a fall in donations after social distancing measures kicked in. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau even made a public appeal, saying “we still need blood donors. If you’re able, consider going in and donating.”
Blood banks have stressed that, even if their stocks are good now, it is important people keep donating as normal, or register and make appointments to donate later in the year, to ensure a steady supply. The UK blood bank has told donors: “We will need you most later in the year as we feel the impact of coronavirus.”
3. Help your local community with care packages or mutual aid groups
A lot of groups have been set up so people can help vulnerable neighbours who can’t leave their homes.
“We try to help with some of the small, everyday things like groceries, picking up prescriptions, and being a friendly voice on the end of a phone line,” says Trin Gong, who runs a mutual aid group with about 250 volunteers in Surrey Docks, east London. They also share useful information, like whether any local supermarkets are particularly busy.
Meanwhile, groups like Dare to Care Packages are co-ordinating donations of personal protective equipment (PPE) for UK hospitals that are low on supplies, and organising donations for vulnerable people who don’t receive emergency care packages from the government.
“Some immunocompromised people don’t qualify, as well as vulnerable women with frequent address changes, refugees, and some people in care homes,” says founder Josephine Liang. “We’re taking donations for soaps and there’s a pretty big need for sanitary pads and tampons too.”
4. Work out where your skills are needed, then volunteer.
There’s been a lot of coverage of people sewing PPE for healthcare workers, or alcohol distilleries making hand sanitisers.
But many less obvious skills are also invaluable to volunteer groups.
For example, a lot of charities and community groups need help operating online – so Marc Sloan and some of his technologist friends teamed up to form Code4Covid and CovidTechSupport, that help non-profit groups with technology problems.
So far, they say they’ve helped a charity set up an online warehouse to distribute essential goods, and helped mutual aid groups design websites that can cope with large numbers of visitors.
“We’re trying to get marketers, product managers, designer and copywriters too – because all the projects we work with need those kinds of skills,” says Mr Sloan.
Meanwhile, many aid groups are looking for drivers and packers who can help deliver supplies, as well as people who can help with outreach and getting donations.
5. Spend money on causes – and businesses – you believe in
Charities and businesses have been hit hard – so making a conscious decision about where you spend your money could help them survive.
Many non-profits have seen increased demand for their services – but have also lost much of their income from fundraising events and charity shops.
One US study found over 75% of non-profit groups had suffered financially from the pandemic – while UK charity groups have estimated they could lose at least £4.3bn of income.
Similarly, small businesses and self-employed workers are suffering – and expect demand to be slow to return even when the outbreak is contained.
If you like a particular business, you can see if they’re offering any services remotely. Many independent book stores, for example, are making deliveries, while some bars are offering online cocktail classes.
In the US, volunteers have set up “virtual tip jars” where people can offer tips to their favourite service industry workers.
The minimum wage for tipped workers is lower in many states, so “tipping is the vast majority of income” for most service staff, says Kristen Monteleone, who started an online tip jar in New Orleans.
6. Write letters to isolated friends and family – or strangers
In addition to physical and financial needs – it’s important to think about mental wellbeing too.
This is a good time to reconnect with people – particularly those who are isolated – and one method that people have turned to is letter writing.
“A letter is something you can touch, keep and read again, and put on your wall or bedside table – not like an email that’s going to be deleted after a while,” says Alienor Duron, who started the project 1lettre1sourire – which translates to “one letter one smile” – in France.
Her team encourages people to write to isolated elderly people in retirement homes in France, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg – and says they have received more than 95,000 letters in just over a month.
And if you know more than one language, that can be useful too.
In New York, relief movement Heart of Dinner is providing hot food, along with handwritten notes in Chinese, to elderly Chinatown residents who are isolated right now.
Founders Yin Chang and Moonlynn Tsai say they came up with the idea after they saw Asian Americans being harassed, and realised that many elderly Chinese Americans are not fluent in English, and could be feeling particularly alone.
7. Keep a diary
Believe it or not – even keeping a diary right now could be valuable.
In New Zealand, PM Jacinda Ardern suggested people keep a journal with “a quick note of where you’ve been and who you’ve been with” – because this could help officials with contact tracing.
And the outbreak is a major event that historians will want to study.
Rob Perks, director of National Life Stories at the British Library, says he would encourage people to keep diaries in written, audio or video format.
“They allow you to verbalise or write down things happening around you. Partly it helps to resolve your thinking, and for future historians, these sorts of contemporary accounts are going to be really valuable.
“Although many of us think history is about politicians and royalty, actually history is about everybody,” Dr Perks, who is also secretary of the Oral History Society, adds.
“Historians need ordinary people’s accounts to understand what’s going on on the ground, and how politicians’ decisions affect people’s lives on a day-to-day basis.”
8. See what items marginalised groups need
Those on the margins of society, who often have fewer resources or support networks nearby, are particularly vulnerable right now. If you want to help, it’s worth talking to NGOs to see if they’re looking for any specific donations.
In Singapore, for example, more than 80% of coronavirus cases are located in migrant worker dormitories. Many of the workers took out large loans to work abroad, and are struggling with feeling trapped in their dormitories, and far from their families.
Non-profit It’s Raining Raincoats runs Whatsapp helplines for the workers, and has found there’s a particular demand for soap, and donations of phone top-up cards that enable workers to stay in touch with their families.
They have also had requests for games, including Rubik’s cubes, and Carrom boards, because “games they played as a young boy have a great comfort factor for them” while they are isolated, says founder Dipa Swaminathan.
9. Help friends and family with remote child care
This can be a particularly exhausting time for parents juggling work and childcare at home. Some people have started reading story books online to their friends’ children, to give the parents a short break.
Keisha Yearby, a teacher in Virginia in the US, has been reading bedtime stories to children via Facebook Live and YouTube, in the hope that children whose parents don’t have time or resources to read to them at home can benefit.
Her tip for anyone reading a story remotely is: “Don’t just read out the book in your regular, every day voice.”
It’s key to engage the child by asking questions and having them share their experiences, she adds.
10. Don’t spread misinformation
There’s been a deluge of false information about the outbreak, including rumours that drinking water every 15 minutes, or taking hot baths, can keep you safe.
A lot of misinformation circulating on social media has also been falsely attributed to reputable organisations, or unnamed “medical experts”.
Lyn Robinson and David Bawden, information science experts at City University of London, say: “Ideally, don’t share anything that doesn’t come directly from a source you trust.”
And even when you have reliable information, you should think about when and how you share it.
“Don’t share automatically… never share a link you haven’t read, or a video you haven’t seen,” say Dr Robinson and Prof Bawden, adding that when you do share links or videos it is best to provide a comment or context with it.
For some, the “constant stream of information, often conflicting, is a source of anxiety in itself,” and information overload can leave people “too tired and distracted to take any positive action”.