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Can strain strengthen neighborhood bonds during the coronavirus crisis?

Unite Here Local 11 food bank
People fill up food boxes at the Unite Here Local 11 food bank to distribute to those in need during the coronavirus outbreak.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

It was billed as ‘“Solid practical advice from Stanford’ for handling the coronavirus” when it showed up in my inbox last week:

Take a deep breath every morning and hold it for 10 seconds. If you don’t cough or feel discomfort that “proves there is no Fibrosis in the lungs,” which means you’re “basically” infection-free.

That was followed by, “Serious excellent advice by Japanese doctors treating COVID-19”:

Take a few sips of water every 15 minutes. Because even if the virus gets into your mouth, drinking water will wash it down through your throat and into the stomach, where your stomach acid will kill all the virus.

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For days I did the morning deep-breath test and set my phone for water-sipping alerts. Convinced that I was armed against contagion, I finally joined the masses scouring stores for toilet paper.

Once experts began to debunk the advice, it dawned on me how foolish I’d been: Deep breathing wasn’t going to let me know if I have COVID-19, and stomach acid wouldn’t be able to kill it if I did.

I’ve always been a natural skeptic. So why was I so gullible about this?

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Because like so many folks who passed that post around, I’m desperate for an explanation, a cure, a path away from panic and back toward normalcy.

Instead, the entire city is on lockdown; people my age have been advised not to leave their home for weeks. This is untrodden territory for us all; a journey that may push us to rethink our beliefs about ourselves, our country and our communities.

For some, the epiphany arrived on Sunday, when a citywide shutdown prompted bars, gyms, restaurants and movie theaters to close. For me the moment was one afternoon last week, when I sauntered into my neighborhood Ralphs and found aisle after aisle of near empty shelves.

It seems normal now, but it felt surreal and shocking then. I should have expected it, of course. I’d just written about binge-buying sprees at big box stores. So why would I expect my particular Ralphs to be exempt?

There’s a sense of entitlement embedded in that assumption, and that’s not something that’s easy for me to admit. But I’ve come to realize there’s a cosseting force to life in suburban communities like mine in the northwest San Fernando Valley, where I’ve lived for more than 30 years.

You learn to expect order, safety, convenience, routine; that’s your entitlement, your reward for choosing the un-hip life. You like to think that you’re in the city, but not of it — insulated from its problems but willing to latch onto its promise.

But that illusion has been flattening for years. Our suburban streets are now perpetually clogged with traffic, because of the pricey gated communities going up on hills once roamed by mountain lions and deer. On main streets and in parking lots, we can’t pretend that we don’t see the spreading tent encampments and clusters of dilapidated RVs, where our new homeless neighbors live.

This coronavirus crisis may be an especially meaningful reality check. In a matter of months the virus has traveled the world from person to person, killing more than 8,700 people, panicking millions, crashing economies and stigmatizing human interaction.

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We don’t know how long it will go on. We do know that our fates are linked, like it or not, to the lives of millions of others across the planet.

The coronavirus has no regard for race, class, geography or ideological divisions. It doesn’t care if you live in the city or the suburbs. Every nation and every person has a responsibility — beyond hoarding, blaming and sharing weird conspiracy theories.

Last week wasn’t a good look for our democracy. The president fumbled so often he should have been benched. Confusion reigned around preparedness. Panic and greed sparked retail chaos.

But this first week of isolation seems to be gentling us, at least in my neighborhood. Our Nextdoor feed is still a cringe-worthy forum for arguments — about the difference between hoarding and stocking up, and whose fault all the coronavirus problems are (the media, of course).

But it’s also a place where neighbors are volunteering to help people they’ve argued with before. One neighbor offers to share surplus toilet paper rolls with anyone in need. Another is running errands for mothers whose kids are at home, so entire families don’t have to leave the house. And several have signed up to do grocery shopping for homebound senior citizens. No one is asking to be paid.

They’re helping strangers because, in my community and yours, that’s what neighbors are supposed to do.


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