Building communities that will stand against COVID-19

There’s an old folktale called “Stone Soup.” In the story, two travelers come to a village carrying nothing with them except an empty cooking pot. At first, the villagers aren’t willing to share any of their food with the hungry travelers.

Undaunted, the travelers fill the pot with water from the stream, then drop a large stone in it. A curious villager who’s passing by asks what they’re doing, and the travelers say they’re making “stone soup.” They’re happy to share the soup with the villager — it just needs a bit of garnish to make it taste even better. The villager, who wants to enjoy some of the soup, decides to throw in some carrots. Soon, more and more villagers are adding other ingredients to the pot.

Finally, since it’s the only thing that can’t be eaten, the stone is removed from the pot. The villagers realize with good humor that the travelers are making a point about sharing. They sit down to a tasty, nourishing pot of soup they can all enjoy.

The question is, as we face the devastating impact of COVID-19 on our communities, who is bringing the stone? Who’s uniting all of us to share, so everyone can be nourished?

Uniting communities to fight the “deaths of despair” caused by COVID-19

Well Being Trust is a national, impact philanthropy with a vision to help communities recover and build resilience. It's at the forefront of the call for community healing around the country. The organization was launched by Providence St. Joseph Health in 2016 to invest in solutions that can transform the nation’s health and improve well-being for everyone.

Stronger communities can come together during the pandemic to help vulnerable communities that are dealing with the unemployment crisis, plunging finances and stress caused by isolation. Lives can be saved.

Just as COVID-19 is taking its toll on lives physically, it’s also having an impact on mental health. A Well Being Trust study says that up to 75,000 more Americans could die because of mental despair related to the pandemic. This shocking figure represents people who suffer from what Well Being Trust calls “deaths of despair,” caused by drug and alcohol misuse and suicide as the virus keeps spreading and lives are disrupted. In the face of COVID-19, deaths of despair should be seen as “the epidemic within the pandemic.”

Seventy-five thousand more deaths. Those are bleak numbers. But be encouraged by this truth: The numbers can be changed because all of those deaths haven’t happened yet. Stronger communities can come together to help vulnerable communities that are dealing with the unemployment crisis, plunging finances and stress caused by isolation. Lives can be saved.

Three ways to build community connections during COVID-19

Tyler Norris, MDiv, is chief executive of Well Being Trust. Here he discusses how Well Being Trust is helping others, and how all of us can create community connections that make a difference and help prevent the deaths of despair.

1. Recognize and respect communities in need.  All communities have racial and socioeconomic disparities and vulnerable populations. These include the elderly, youth and those with low income who are hit harder than others during a crisis. And now they face even greater challenges brought on by COVID-19 and persistent racism. In fact, says Tyler Norris, “We need to recognize those extra layers of vulnerability, represented by loss of income and savings … grief and uncertainty. COVID-19 is the great ‘unmasker’ and has made race and income differences stand out more than ever. We want to bring a deep respect and empathy to those who are experiencing hardships and listen to what they need so that together, we can take the right actions.”

COVID-19 is the great ‘unmasker’ and has made race and income differences stand out more than ever.

You may see a neighbor grieving over the loss of a loved one because of COVID-19. Or perhaps you learn of a family that’s struggling to provide meals for their school-age kids. These are chances for you to step in and address those needs personally. You can also contribute on a wider scale by giving time or money to community organizations.

2. Partner with others. Although it’s a national organization, Well Being Trust also works closely with local groups that have feet on the ground and can be resources to address multiple social issues at a community level. For example, Tyler points out, “We work in close partnership with fellow caregivers and teams such as Providence. None of us can do it all by ourselves. It’s like ‘Stone Soup’ — when we all come together, we have enough.”

“Well Being Trust works  in close partnership with fellow caregivers and teams such as Providence. None of us can do it all by ourselves. It’s like ‘Stone Soup’ — when we all come together, we have enough," says Norris.

Partner with organizations to put your own feet on the ground and serve. For instance, you can volunteer with Meals on Wheels and deliver food. Start a grassroots fundraising effort using email, text or social media. Join with others to support people in your community who are missing work, need childcare or are dealing with extra healthcare costs. Learn more about racism in all its forms.

3. Encourage others to stay connected. There’s never been a more important time to stay connected with those you love and who love you. “I now have a weekly Zoom with my extended family across the country,” says Tyler. “All of us can invite others into conversations and help others through loss and grief.” Call or FaceTime friends and family to let them know you’re there for them, even if you can’t be physically near. Doing this helps keep others’ spirits up and gives everyone something to look forward to.

“We need safe ways to engage, so we can stay socially connected. Without each other, it is natural to feel bereft," says Norris.

There’s a difference between “social distancing” and “physical distancing.” Tyler emphasizes, “We need safe ways to engage, so we can stay socially connected. Without each other, it is natural to feel bereft.”

Take stock and take action

While it’s a tough task, it’s vital to take stock of the current crisis – and do what you can about it. That’s the path toward creating local and national community solutions. Says Tyler, “COVID-19 has brought about a quickening of caring and connection. In many cases, it’s accelerating actions that would have taken much longer to make happen.”

There is much work to be done, such as advancing policies that make integrated primary care more affordable and accessible. According to Tyler, “COVID-19 has reminded us of the things that matter most. Individually, we can strengthen families and build our resilience, Together, we can invest in and partner to create build mentally healthy, vibrant communities around the country.

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Related resources

Managing grief and stress during COVID-19: Insights from NIH directors

Well Being Trust

Providence St. Joseph Health

Projected Deaths of Despair from COVID-19

Give teens tools for managing distress during COVID-19 crisis

A call to philanthropists with a heart for healthcare heroes

How to celebrate birthdays at a safe distance

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