Eighteen years ago, my mother was hospitalized and in intensive care for a virulent necrotic staphylococcus infection that was growing rapidly in several parts of her body. I was with her for most of almost every day for almost six weeks. Heavily medicated, she had trouble speaking clearly or focusing, but she wanted me to read her a novel to take her attention off her fear and pain. It might seem an odd choice, but she requested the book “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks.
“Year of Wonders” is a work of historical fiction based on true events that took place in the British village of Eyam in 1665 and 1666. Eyam suffered an outbreak of the plague. The village chose to self-quarantine in order to stop the spread beyond its borders. In gratitude for this selfless act and in recognition that Eyam would be ill-equipped to secure or produce its own food and supplies, neighboring villages set up a system in which they dropped needed food and items at an agreed location and the quarantined inhabitants later brought the goods to their town. No contact was necessary, and no plague was spread.
These days, and in our decidedly non-fictional world, we have retreated in strategy from the containment of COVID-19 to a mitigation of its effects. I have been feeling into the experience of reading that book to my mother and considering how a variation of the arrangement in the story might be suitable to our community and maybe others.
Those among us choosing to self-isolate or self-quarantine because they might be contagious are engaged in an act of generosity for the greater good. They are helping to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 by “flattening the curve,” and by protecting those most vulnerable. As a thought experiment or exercise, I have considered ways we might support those offering this gift. As a grateful community, might we leave food or supplies or games or books or hobbies at their front door in a coordinated and thoughtful way? Might we regularly get their mail for them from the post office? Might we offer some time to talk on the phone to those who are lonely and likely frightened? Maybe even read them a book?
Let me be clear, I do not have a fully baked policy proposal. I am not particularly versed in how such a project might be coordinated or formalized or funded or sustained in the long term. But I am cautiously optimistic that if we were able to forge something like this we might accrue benefits beyond the obvious support to those affected and in need, including local resilience in the face of the global problem; a blueprint for future outbreaks that may be more likely as the climate shifts; community self-sufficiency; mitigation not just of contagion, but also of fear; reduction in the perceived need for personal hoarding of supplies; and a mechanism to both involve and support local businesses in the venture.
Local business as a topic deserves specific attention. Even the necessary practice of social distancing adversely affects businesses. Isolation and quarantine, if undertaken by a great many, could be disastrous. A complete or near breakdown in commerce and supply could be worse than the disease itself. No doubt our restaurants are already feeling the pain. Might they supply take-out? Our grocery stores and drug stores are facing numerous challenges. Can they be part of this solution in a way that would help them keep afloat? Can we embrace these and other retail establishments, which would, in turn, help our local agricultural producers and manufacturers? Buying local—but not hoarding—may be more important now than ever.
All this takes money. I am fortunate enough that if I were to isolate myself and my family, I would expect to pay for any supplies brought to us and be really grateful just for the service and camaraderie. I work from home and would be able to maintain an income stream. But this is not true for everyone. If what we create is merely a volunteer delivery service for paid goods, we don’t serve the fundamental purpose. There are those who will need every bit as much help who will not be able to pay for it, who will already be sacrificing by cutting off their income and who will likely be unable to work from home. Their sacrifice will be even greater for their circumstance. We must ensure that the inability to pay will not mean an inability to participate.
I am woefully uneducated in the internal operations of our various institutions, so I am not in a position to suggest who would be best suited to forge and operate a program like this. Is it West Marin Community Services? Is it the Coastal Health Alliance? Is it the disaster council? One of our houses of worship? Is it a combination? Does there need to be a new institution created out of whole cloth? It is easy, of course, to write an op-ed piece and shove off the idea to some organization that is likely already overstretched, and I don’t mean to do that. My hope is that this idea might grab the attention of someone with levers and expertise and experience to enact it. I would be really happy to help.
My mother survived her scary bout with the staph infection, and lived beautifully for another decade before she passed away from unrelated conditions. May it be the same for all of us!
Stephan Golux is a semi-retired threatre director and educator currently working as a software engineer. He lives in Point Reyes Station and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.