Community workers with One Good Street (Image: supplied)

There seems to be another contagion sweeping through communities and social networks, and community worker Rebecca Gelsi has come down with a chronic dose of it.

A major symptom: heroic acts of kindness.

Even as rampaging coronavirus anxiety was igniting stockpiling raids on supermarket aisles, Gelsi felt moved this weekend to leave a couple of spare rolls of toilet paper on her picket fence for the convenience of any neighbours caught short. 

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Community worker Rebecca Gelsi fliers her neighbourhood (Image: Supplied)

She then settled down at her computer to put the finishing touches on a flyer for distribution in nearby streets. She managed to crank out 20 copies before the home printer ran out of ink, and will push out some more when she gets to the office today.

“Time to support each other,” reads the headline. “Let’s go against the fear and share resources and encouragement.” 

Gelsi is part of a growing online campaign pushing similarly subversive messages of generosity through her neighbourhood Facebook group. And, after realising that many of the most vulnerable and isolated members of her community were likely locked out of these virtual support networks, she’s also gone the extra mile with an old school letterbox drop.

“I knew you can reduce fear and uncertainty through community support,” says Gelsi, who is acting manager of West Footscray Neighbourhood House. “Knowing you have your neighbours backing you up makes a huge difference.”

She’s no isolated case. As public concern about COVID-19 deepens, social networks — virtual and real — are pushing the mantra of “love thy neighbour” and connectedness as powerful antidotes to “every man for himself”. Just take a look at the locked-down Italian communities singing from their balconies.

In Australia, neighbourhood social media networks are reporting a surge in membership and activity over the past couple of weeks, and pro-forma versions of Gelsi’s flyer are being widely shared to help people identify and support each other offline. 

The Good Karma Network, which has dozens of Facebook groups covering suburbs across Melbourne’s north and west, has been flooded with thousands of posts from people offering household supplies and help with shopping as people with symptoms have locked down. 

The network’s founder, Amy Churchouse, said many people are also using the platforms to find safe ways to just connect to each other as infection control strategies of social distancing and isolation ramp up.

“Some people are in need of material support and some just want to talk, but there’s a sense that we’re going to be okay because we are looking out for each other,” says Churchouse.

Coronavirus has not only kicked up momentum and energy on established neighbourhood networks, but appears to be seeding a range of new initiatives. 

The Facebook groups Love your neighbour Melbourne – COVID-19 inspired local connections and Northside Melbourne / Naarm CoronaVirus Outreach were both created on Friday and already have thousands of members offering everything from hand sanitiser to free child care.

A post from Northside Melbourne Coronavirus Outreach (Image: Carmen Will/Facebook)

All the evidence is that this kind of contagion of connectivity is good for us, argues Lisa Gibbs, an expert on disaster management and community resilience at the University of Melbourne. “There is complete consistency in the literature on disaster recovery that if people are socially connected, their outcomes are better”.

While welcoming this surge of neighbourliness, Matiu Bush, founder of support network One Good Street, cautions that it is vital for new groups to connect with and reinforce existing networks to ensure resources get to those who need them most. 

“Good intentions are great, but assistance really needs to hit the formal care system, because it’s the nurses who are visiting the most isolated people,” he says.

Bush, a clinician by training, started One Good Street in 2017 to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness in older populations. He works with Melbourne’s community nurses program to help locate vulnerable older people and distribute resources like food and mobility equipment. 

“It has been a huge weekend of activity, but the community is responding in a chaotic and uncoordinated way,” says Bush.

“People are calling me and posting on the Facebook page wanting to contact people who are isolated, but they have no idea how to approach these people.

“The majority of these groups end up looking after the worried well, which scatters the response and diverts resources from pre-existing networks that can provide a more targeted, effective response.”

Bush says he saw a similar response in the wake of the recent bushfires.

“Rather than contact Rotary or St Vincents, people set up their own groups and got flooded with donations that end up dumped on those organisations. They’re still trying to sort through those bushfire donations now.”

Bush and Churchouse have also observed that while social media platforms provide a powerful mechanism for bringing people together, they can equally become a loud hailer for negative and damaging messages if people don’t engage carefully and responsibly, especially when it comes to sharing information about the virus. 

It’s a substantial burden (and tension) for groups that rely on volunteers to curate content.

“We don’t want people spreading misinformation, so we advise people to always triple check their sources,” says Churchouse. 

An unverified post in a Facebook group with 10,000 members has huge potential to spread misinformation, but Lisa Gibbs argues that regulating such groups isn’t necessarily the answer.

“There are health risks at play, so you want to proceed in a way that’s safe and appropriate, but you don’t want to get bogged down in red tape,” she says.

As people battle over toilet paper in supermarket aisles, Bush says the most valuable resource these groups offer is the sense that, even in isolation, we’re not alone.

“The main thing with all these groups is to make sure people know they are being looked out for,” he says.

“That burns away fear.”

Benjamin Silvester is a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne, and a cadet at The Citizen. This story is co-published with The Citizen, a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism.

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