Where’s that supposed American local ingenuity in our Covid response?

An emergency manager urges us to think bigger in fighting the pandemic.

In October of 1918, influenza deaths spiked horribly in Oklahoma City. The poor collapsed in higher numbers, hospitals wouldn’t take them as patients, and there was no free housing to isolate contacts. Appalled, forty prominent residents marched into the Mayor’s Office, unannounced, and demanded the Public Safety Commissioner’s resignation. Then, they mapped the city, recruited volunteers to knock on every door and addressed every issue they found.

This spirit of local ingenuity — call it disaster innovation — has been a part of every major American catastrophe. Think of the clothing drives after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 or the 300,000 people evacuated by ferry from Manhattan after 9/11. Consider the small towns who funded the polio vaccine in the 50s via the March of Dimes or New York City’s 1957 smallpox inoculation. In crises, our communities come together to do the impossible, uniting despite our differences, blending local spirit with government coordination.

What the hell happened?

It’s true that even in the best cases, government moves slowly in crisis, and in the worst cases (think Hurricane Katrina) the response makes underlying discrimination in society worse, not better. But today, we have stepped beyond this “worst” case into a world of deadly inaction. Across the country, the push to just “reopen” is increasing the death rate and discriminating against those workers at greatest risk.

It’ll get better, you say? As an emergency manager, I know that choices we make in a disaster stick around. As death rates climb, we are dangerously remaking our society in ways that will play out for generations. We don’t have to settle for this, America; around the world, it’s the local innovation that’s making a difference.

The new book Pandemic Solidarity: Mutual Aid during the Covid-19 Crisis reels off innovative practices: Consider rapid testing kits in Syria, indigenous prisoner support in Oaxaca, social health clinics in Taiwan that connect Covid care to community needs, or the 300 nonprofits standing together in South Africa for a more just pandemic response.

There’s more, and it’s amazing. In Turkey, Italy, Iraq, Argentina, Brazil, the UK and other countries, local towns formed networks that directly supported up to 80% of at-risk people over 70 and lowered the risk to their essential workers. In Milan, one volunteer brigade assembled a phone center with 80 operators to handle groceries, symptom checks and isolation support for every resident.

It’s not that the United States hasn’t had local innovation. Groups have helped kids with remote learning, printed 3D PPE, made masks and delivered food. Plus, we’ve gone digital, with homegrown sites like CovidActNow.org and GreenSlate.us educating us on virus risk and connecting us to nonprofits that can help.

It’s inspiring, but it’s the exception, not the rule. Against all evidence, most of this country keeps thinking that federal or state aid is going to solve the problem. But, in times of crises, the best ideas are right next door.

So, listen up, America, it’s time to break some rules. Your community could:

  • Outfit abandoned movie theaters and businesses with HEPA ventilators to gain precious space for childcare or social services. Use empty hotels to prevent outbreaks among the homeless.
  • Recruit the unemployed to become the army of contact tracers we still don’t have or cover shifts for high risk “essential workers”.
  • Take responsibility for the health of local workers and nursing home residents. Don’t leave it to faceless corporations or the Feds.
  • Identify local businesses that cannot reopen safely and pay those workers to stay home
  • Provide free comprehensive care for anyone who needs it and connect patients to follow-up healthcare support right in their neighborhoods.

Remember — not all innovations are created equal. Ideas like school “pods” (where a few parents create a microschool) can exclude precisely those most at risk. We must imagine ideas that lift up these vulnerable communities, folks who’ve lost jobs or can’t work at home, often the Black, Indigenous and peoples of color who have already seen the pandemic’s heaviest losses.

Does it seem far fetched that your community could have this much power? Based on the work of scholars like Daniel Aldrich, this can be done and it can be done now. In this type of world-shaking crisis, why not form a council of people across diverse backgrounds, shout your wildest ideas, and get some funding?

Your community doesn’t have money to spare? There’s a solution to that, too. Let’s design some rapid, voluntary Covid-19 bond programs to fund the creative civic initiatives we need. We’ve used bonds to fight wars and build bridges; why not now? City by city, town by town, we can create systemic change.

In 1918, there was little federal or state pandemic leadership. The forty Okies that marched into their Mayor’s Office accepted responsibility for their neighbor’s risk. They made their city better through the sheer force of wild innovation. I believe in that vision of America. Do we have that same spirit today?

Mitch Stripling is an emergency manager based in Brooklyn who has responded to more than a dozen federally declared disasters.

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