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Tim Steller's opinion: Virus shutdown demands new sort of crisis response

Tim Steller's opinion: Virus shutdown demands new sort of crisis response

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 665 cases in Arizona, COVID-19 deaths in Pima County rise to 4 series

James DeDitius points at ducks as he sits with caregiver Mary Figueroa on a bench next to a lake at Reid Park, on March 17, 2020. The two were trying to spend some time outside at a distance from other people as Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) continues to grow throughout the United States. The Tucson Parks and Recreation Department announced that they would be closing community rec centers and public pools through the end of the month. Tennis courts, golf courses and general public areas will remain open at this time.

In the crises we’re used to, people know how to respond: Go out, band together and solve the problem.

We get together and sandbag for floods. We may make meals for each other, or help rebuild a home, or put people up for a few nights if they’re forced from their homes.

The natural crisis response is to get together and get the job done for each other. There’s power and pleasure in the collective effort.

So how do we respond to a crisis in which we can’t get together and work — in which the whole point is to stay at least six feet apart?

That is a conundrum.

But it is one that, this way and that way, Southern Arizona residents are starting to improvise our way through. Day by day, we’re learning to band together — apart.

Take my neighbor Amy. She’s a good soul and volunteered Monday to go to Costco for an older person. Such a good soul is Amy that she also asked us if we needed anything. We did, and she braved the lines alone.

That kind of thing is pretty common and should become the rule: If you have to go out to one of our retail outlets for essentials, ask around to see what other people need. The whole idea is to get fewer of us together to slow the spread.

Or take Jennifer Deyoe. She’s one of many people who offered their services on the neighborhood website NextDoor.

She posted, “Hey neighbors. Need anything? TP, a meal, cup of coffee, help with the kiddos? Our family is here for all of you. Let me know! Seriously. ASK!”

She got a handful of responses, mostly along the lines of “We need toilet paper” and was able to provide a six-pack of TP for one family. But on NextDoor, the message may not reach broadly enough to touch the people who need the help the most.

The thing is, the problems aren’t just practical ones — increasingly, the problems are going to be psychological, social and financial.

One issue is the anxiety that comes with all this uncertainty. I know I’ve had a few nearly sleepless nights lately, catastrophizing on my pillow.

“There is a growing level of fear,” University of Arizona psychiatrist Dr. Saira Kalia told me. “The uncertainty is making things a lot worse.”

The anxiety is especially prevalent among employees at hospitals, like Banner-University Medical Center, where Kalia is medical director of outpatient psychiatry services.

“You’re not certain how much protection you have or how much backup you have,” she said.

You could look at the toilet-paper shortage as simply an expression of anxiety. People are looking to soothe their nerves, and getting enough toilet paper for a month or more does the trick.

If the anxiety weren’t bad enough, get ready for the isolation. We’re social creatures, forced to isolate ourselves. And some, especially older people, are already too isolated for their own good.

“We’re telling people to hunker down, but there are health impacts to that as well,” said Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik. “The health impacts of social isolation, especially on the elderly. That’s a big deal.”

Kozachik and others hosted a 90-minute telephone bank Monday evening, with experts and service providers on hand to provide answers. They got 316 calls, he said, from complex to simple.

Some people really just wanted to hear that what they were doing is right. The experts plan to do it again.

The Pima Council on Aging is receiving a flood of calls to its help line, 520-790-7262, spokeswoman Adina Wingate said.

Isolation was already a big concern for the organization and the outlook is getting more worrisome.

The organization serves older people in need through its helpline and through its Neighbors Care Alliance, which coordinates help in 19 neighborhoods. You can volunteer by filling out a form on the council’s website.

Many neighborhood organizations, housing management offices and networks of all kinds are also available to help. But we don’t need to go through organizations to reach out.

Barb Lemmon of Green Valley told me she’s organized a “patio chat” where no more than four neighbors sit at least six feet apart on a patio in her subdivision.

“We all have the same size patio in the complex. If we get three to four, no more, people on a patio, and you can sit six feet apart, you can just chat. So that people won’t go stir crazy.”

The key is not to think only about your friends, neighbors and family members who you may already have a close connection to. It’s to think of the people you have a distant relationship to, people who may not have any real close connections, at least not nearby.

You can knock on the door — use a glove or cloth to be extra sanitary — and then step six feet back. You can check in by phone or by email. You can combine errands or just say hello, from a distance.

It’s a new kind of crisis response, but one that we can figure out if we continue to band together — apart.

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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