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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland.
As the omicron variant of the coronavirus takes off at home and abroad, experts and concerned citizens urge us once again to remember our communal responsibility and interdependence. Their message is that we’re all connected more intimately than we realize, and our individual behavior affects the commonwealth.
This is an essential reminder in so many ways. Unfortunately, it seems to be invoked only in the context of stopping COVID-19 spread. Stay home if you’re sick, limit your social contacts and get your vaccinations, because you never know who you might infect otherwise, and who they might infect, et cetera.
Yes, individual adherence to public health measures is crucial (even when inconvenient), but it’s only one small part of our responsibility to our fellow humans. If I live near you, I can potentially give you a contagious disease and vice versa.
But if you, as my neighbor, are unhoused, unsafe in your housing situation, struggling to pay bills, wrangling with insurance companies, alone and unsupported in grief, or drowning in despair — that affects me, too. The impact doesn’t have to be as physically obvious as a cough to be real, significant, and sustained.
My neighbors’ access to food, water and shelter shows how well my community is equipped to care for the basic needs of its members. My neighbors’ mental and emotional wellness helps uphold my own; loneliness is widely recognized as a public health crisis, and deaths by suicide have a devastating ripple effect on communities. My neighbors’ illnesses and treatments do more than tax overworked nurses or take up a hospital bed — they indicate how the many moving parts of a complex healthcare system are succeeding or failing us all.
This winter season, like the last one, will test our resilience. It’s tempting to think that if we each work to limit the spread of the virus as much as possible, our responsibilities to one another will be complete. But there’s so much more we can and should be doing to help everyone stay the course.
Check in on your friends and acquaintances. Reach out to anyone you know who’s isolated or overwhelmed. Listen when they need to talk. Learn the signs of depression, learn the signs of domestic abuse, and learn how to tell and intervene if someone is suicidal. Have a list of numbers to call in case of a crisis.
Follow the donation requests of public resource providers like Preble Street and Maine Needs, or your preferred local charity. Advocate for policies that will protect the most vulnerable Mainers, from immunocompromised seniors to unhoused families. Explore mutual aid resources in your neighborhood and city.
Tell people how glad you are to have them in your life. Encourage your friends to make wise choices, not because they might burden the healthcare system if they don’t — no human being is ever, ever a burden — but because you want them to survive and thrive. This is an incomplete list, and I’m sure you can add to it on your own.
Interconnectedness goes so much deeper than viral contagion. I want you alive and healthy, physically and mentally, because we are fellows on this planet. The stronger you are, the stronger I can be.