Everything I learned about weathering COVID-19, I learned from responding to disaster with ShelterBox

By Yi Shun Lai, ShelterBox Response Team Volunteer

First: Stay in place. The families we meet on deployment for ShelterBox are in deep need: Many of their homes have blown away; their villages are in disarray, and the supply chains for necessities like food and water are still down. But they are still alive after hurricanes because they sheltered in place or because they heeded community leaders’ advice and went to shelter at a communal location, like a school or a church. They stayed put. Just like we’re doing now.

Second: Look after your community. Everyone’s heard the Mr. Rogers quote, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I don’t mean in the form of foreign aid agencies who have come in to help. I mean people within their own communities, who are checking to see if their neighbors are okay, who help rebuild, who offer to look after each other’s children while the adults are out trying to right the massive wrongs done by an earthquake, flood, mudslide, or other disaster.

I’m seeing a lot of this now. My friend Dave reports from Seattle, Washington, USA that people are putting up signs in their windows that say either “okay” or “need help,” so it’s easier to see which households need assistance during this time. And Carrot Quinn, a writer I met on book tour in 2016, has put together a Mutual Aid endeavor for her Tucson, Arizona, USA community. Carrot and her team stockpile and deliver supplies to people who need it. (Read more about it here.)

In my own experience as an aid volunteer, I’ve met folks who set aside their own needs to help their neighbors first; who put their own affairs in minimal order and then immediately got down to things like feeding their communities.

In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that means taking stock of your own resources, and then seeing what you can do to help. If you’re still healthy and not of senior age, make a list of the seniors you know in your neighborhood and just call to check in.

Third: Share your knowledge base. When our teams deploy to areas of great need, we’re often working with other agencies who are also operating in the area. Whether it’s the Red Cross/Red Crescent, Habitat for Humanity, the International Organization for Migration, or highly local agencies, we all have to work together to make sure everyone’s caught up.

Disaster relief works best when everyone is working from the same information. And it’s not much different from what we’re experiencing now. If one community believes one set of information and another believes something completely different, any efforts we make toward progress may run counter to each other.

A friend who owns a bookstore in Indiana, USA said she eventually had to close because senior customers kept coming in and saying they were sure it wasn’t as bad as “they” were saying. And my parents-in-law were very excited at the empty state of the airports, asking “Is it a good time for us to come visit you?”

No. No, it’s not. My husband’s started sending his parents the information that we’ve been getting. We don’t know if it’s registering or not, but we must work to ensure they have the same access to this information. Check your sources and  back them up. And then share with your own personal community, in responsible fashion.

And finally: Celebrate the connections you already have. The summer before last, I was in Dominica checking on families and communities we had helped after Hurricane Maria. We talked to some women who said that one ritual they regularly participated in before Maria was to do each other’s hair, and play dominoes or cards a couple times a week.

When Maria wiped out the island’s electricity, they couldn’t do that as easily. But when ShelterBox brought in solar lights for them, the women were able to maintain and continue their community, in the same way they did it before.

In disaster-relief terms, that’s a sign of recovery.

Last night I hosted a little cooking event on behalf of ShelterBox over Facebook Live. I’m not sure who I expected to show up. I think part of me thought it’d be mostly people two or more degrees removed from me — friends of the agency I hadn’t met yet, or friends of my co-host.

But I was doubly surprised: First, that the vast majority of people who came were my friends. And then second, by how incredibly happy I was to see those faces and names come up, and their friendly, familiar conversation with me over the stream.

I think what happened was this: because our overall situation is different, I kind of thought everything would or should be different.

Surprise – it’s not. Your friends are still your friends. Your community is still your community.

A card game at twilight is still a card game at twilight, no matter how ravaged the landscape. And a friend making a mess of her kitchen and engaging in some patter is still the same friend, no matter the physical distance.

Knowing that can help you feel better.

A version of this story first ran at Medium. For Part 2 of this series, Lessons from ShelterBox help me with self-care during self-isolation, click here.


One thought on “Everything I learned about weathering COVID-19, I learned from responding to disaster with ShelterBox

  1. This is an excellent post, and I am heeding the authors advice. But – lets remember it wasn’t seniors who were partying down on Miami Beach when we had already begun to shelter in place, so it’s not ‘just” seniors who are the problem. And to add to the challenge, the models our leaders are relying upon are demonstrably off, sometimes by factors of 6 or ten or more, and its obvious to even casual observers that politics is =still=being played. Better safe than sorry, true, but our economy is burning down around us the longer we remain “sheltered”.

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