During the pandemic, we can keep our distance while looking after one another


As a stay-at-home order takes effect for residents of Houston and Harris County, the importance of social solidarity and working together for the common good become even more crucial to protecting our most vulnerable neighbors.

person walks alone in a plaza
Photo by Andrew Gook / Unsplash


As a stay-at-home order takes effect for residents of Houston and Harris County, the importance of social solidarity and working together for the common good become even more crucial to protecting our most vulnerable neighbors.

In November of last year, the “Sunnyside Strong” survey showed that — to a high extent — residents in the south-central Houston neighborhoods of Sunnyside and South Park believed their neighbors were helpful and looked out for each other.

More than 60% of respondents said their neighbors would be willing to assist with emergency child care, get someone’s mail and give someone a ride. Almost 80% indicated someone would help if an elderly neighbor needed to be checked on.

Though the survey showed a number of challenges in the areas of crime and safety, economic development, improving public transportation and access to healthy food options, the power of social cohesion combined with a willingness of residents to work together for the common good — known as collective efficacy — is one of the community’s greatest strengths.

“As a sociologist, I believe nothing is more important than the social fabric of a neighborhood,” Rachel Kimbro, a Rice University sociology professor and one of the researchers who conducted the survey, said when the survey was released. “When residents trust and look out for each other, even factors like high poverty levels are not as impactful on well-being.

“These aspects of Sunnyside mean the foundation for neighborhood improvements is very strong,” Kimbro said. “Investments in the neighborhood, whether in infrastructure or retail or housing, have a better chance of succeeding because the social fabric is so strong.”

Taking action for the greater good

Collective efficacy is important during a time like this when communities and cities are trying to slow the spread of COVID-19 by urging residents to stay home as much as possible, not gather in groups and practice social distancing. If residents make sure not adhering to these guidelines and orders is unacceptable behavior and reinforce that by maintaining appropriate distance, collective efficacy can help change the social norms for the time being and keep the pandemic from getting worse.

But what about the effects of prolonged social distancing on neighborhoods such as South Park, Sunnyside and many others in Houston and the surrounding area? How will the already vulnerable among us, such as adults over the age of 60 and those with chronic illnesses, who are at a higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19, be impacted by isolation that could result from social distancing? As of Tuesday morning, leaders in 16 states, 10 counties and several cities, including Houston and Harris County, have issued stay-at-home orders. That means don’t go to work, school or leave your home unless necessary. Such orders would only seem to further increase the risk of isolation.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced details of the order, which expires April 3, on Tuesday morning. Essential businesses such as pharmacies and grocery stores are allowed to stay open. Churches are restricted to online services. Parks will remain open with the exception of areas like playgrounds and basketball courts.

Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote about the consequences of social isolation — itself linked to a greater risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and other health problems, both physical and psychological — in a time of pandemic earlier this month.

“But just as the coronavirus fallout threatens to cause an economic recession, it’s also going to cause what we might call a ‘social recession’: a collapse in social contact that is particularly hard on the populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness — older adults and people with disabilities or pre-existing health conditions.”

The dangers of social isolation

When a brutal heat wave left 739 Chicago residents dead in the summer of 1995, sociologist Eric Klinenberg wanted to know why the disaster killed the people it did. The distribution of deaths was indiscriminate, claiming lives in affluent and poor neighborhoods. He was particularly interested in Englewood and Auburn Gresham — “neighboring neighborhoods” with similarly high levels of crime and poverty but drastically disparate levels of social infrastructure. As a result, the heat wave affected the neighborhoods in dramatically different ways.

Englewood, which was “bombed out” and “abandoned,” had one of the highest death rates due to the heat in the city. Many residents, particularly older and more vulnerable residents who were already isolated, hunkered down in their homes and died.

On the other hand, Auburn Gresham, with its churches, restaurants, stores and community organizations that encouraged people to congregate and connect, had one of the lowest heat-related death rates. The connections among the residents meant the older and more vulnerable were more likely to be checked on and helped. The research resulted in Klinenberg’s first book, “Heat Wave.”

In his most recent book, “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life,” Klinenberg, an author and sociology professor at New York University, contends the future health of democracy depends on the quality of the country’s social infrastructure — shared spaces like public libraries, places of worship, child care centers, bookstores and parks. His research has shown that neighborhoods and communities flourish or flounder depending on the strength of their social infrastructure.

If Klinenberg is right, then today, throughout the nation, neighborhoods, communities, towns and cities are struggling not only to mitigate the effects of the novel coronavirus but also to deal with being cut off from their social infrastructure. The shutdown of shared spaces affects many people but it disproportionately impacts those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, elderly or homeless. If a person’s only access to the internet is the public library, all of which are closed, how do they find news and information about the current pandemic? If the schools and day cares are closed and a parent works a job in which working from home isn’t an option, what do they do?

“HISD being closed puts a lot of strain on people, especially if they’re a single parent and they still have to go to work,” Rice University’s Vice Provost for Research Yousif Shamoo said recently. “That presents a very difficult situation. Normally, you might use grandparents as alternative care. I’m not sure people want to do that now because then you’re potentially exposing grandparents to more opportunities for infection.”

That’s not to suggest that strict implementation of social distancing is the wrong approach. (Maybe, as some have suggested, we should refer to it as physical — not social — distancing.) Self-isolating as much as possible for the foreseeable is the best shot we have, no matter how much some American leaders may want to rush back to life without restrictions.

Social solidarity in the time of pandemic

In the New York Times opinion section, Klinenberg drew comparisons between the current pandemic and the heat-wave deaths in Chicago and stressed the need for social solidarity in battling the coronavirus in America:

“Solidarity motivates us to promote public health, not just our own personal security. It keeps us from hoarding medicine, toughing out a cold in the workplace or sending a sick child to school. It compels us to let a ship of stranded people dock in our safe harbors, to knock on our older neighbor’s door. …

“Distrust and confusion are rampant. In this context, people take extreme measures to protect themselves and their families. Concern for the common good diminishes. We put ourselves, not America, first.”

Whatever your political leanings, almost everyone would agree this nation is divided. That division has led to mistrust and a us-against-them mentality. The social fabric has unraveled and the collective efficacy and social structure that researchers saw as key to promising potential in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood seems splintered.

Klinenberg calls for social solidarity AND social distancing. We can take care of the most vulnerable among us while still taking all the necessary steps to fortify public health and lower the long-term costs of the pandemic.

What we need most right now is more empathy and understanding and less self-serving, strident individualism. We need to take care of ourselves and each other. Unfortunately, a lack of empathy had reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. long before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

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