Centering the Vulnerable: A Plan for Providing Community Social Support During Social Distancing

By Leigh Graham, PhD

For community members for whom social support is essential to their health and well-being, social distancing is not just isolating, but perilous to their mental health, to their community and family stability, to their survival. For people in recovery, pregnant and birthing people, older adults, people with disabilities, single parents, and people at risk of intimate partner violence, among others — social distancing disproportionately increases risks of depression, anxiety, loneliness, trauma, and violence — to potentially lethal levels.

The primary directive of social distancing runs counter to our most ingrained disaster response: reaching out to help one another in a time of need through our community networks and institutions.

The primary directive of social distancing runs counter to our most ingrained disaster response: reaching out to help one another in a time of need through our community networks and institutions. Yet, establishing contact to provide material and social support is still possible. I recommend a series of steps that local public sector and philanthropic leaders can take right now to provide vital social support during the pandemic. I draw on real world examples from Boston and elsewhere based on my experience as a mother, an expert on disaster recovery, and in my recent work in urban maternal health.

Virtual Support

First, transform face-to-face peer support to virtual models, including buddy systems, phone trees, text threads, and online support groups. These provide a safe means of communicating, “I see you. I hear you. You are not alone. We are in this together.” Increasingly, addiction recovery programs are offering virtual connections, a lifeline when social isolation can be a key relapse trigger. In order to increase our virtual reach, organizations that provide emotional support can offer virtual trainings of proven models. Two good examples include Group Peer Support in Massachusetts and Ancient Song Doula Services in Brooklyn; both are offering virtual trainings to support populations at risk of mental illness and trauma from social isolation, such as birthing people who may have to forego doula care due to hospital restrictions on the number of support partners permitted. Trainings can be funded philanthropically, through subsidy, or offered at a sliding scale to ensure widespread uptake.

Resilience Hubs

Second, fund community-based organizations to set up resilience hubs to provide material support through the collection and distribution of goods such as groceries, meals, educational enrichment, etc. These hubs can build a network of neighbors and volunteers and enable a routine point-of-contact with vulnerable households. This is a model proposed in Rockaway, Queens, New York City after Hurricane Sandy, and one expanding now as local food pantries and local businesses innovate to reach the exponential number of families in need.

Technology Distribution

Third, empower community institutions to distribute information and communications technology, whether public schools, senior centers, faith-based organizations, public housing authorities, and other frontline organizations, with connections to households more likely to lack reliable internet access and computers. These organizations possess databases of constituents as well as access to charitable and government funding streams to deliver hotspots, laptops, and other devices to bridge the digital divide. Boston Public Schools, like many others throughout the state, prioritized delivering laptops and hotspots to households with school-age children in their transition to remote learning. The YMCA of Greater Springfield has launched 413Families to provide information and community support via regular texts.

Culturally Appropriate Care

In all of these efforts, we must prioritize culturally appropriate social care, through investments in mutual aid and community-based networks, that recognizes and integrates history, local context, socioeconomic realities, and cultural traditions into outreach, community building, and service delivery. This is critical for Black and Brown communities who are at disproportionate risk of dying from COVID-19, due to legacies of structural racism and socioeconomic inequities that have led to pronounced health disparities and legitimate distrust of health care systems.

In this slow rolling global pandemic, we must come together to reimagine social support when social distancing is the public health imperative. Community, political, business and philanthropic leaders are positioned to take our nation’s indefatigable charitable spirit and collectively organize it through our community networks and institutions, using virtual, light touch adaptations of best practices for assisting our most vulnerable groups. Those of us representing and working with these groups can pool resources and models to create a vital support network that will survive the pandemic and become a best practice for a robust “civic infrastructure” that provides inclusive care, social support, and resources to our most vulnerable neighbors in times of stability and crisis.

When we center the most vulnerable, we design systems and approaches that can work for us all now and in the future.

Leigh Graham is the Scientific Lead for the Cities Challenge of the Delivery Decisions Initiative at Ariadne Labs, and a Research Scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She has worked in disaster recovery since September 11, 2001, including after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy in Rockaway, Queens.Header illustration by Kateryna Kovarzh / iStock