Coronavirus: Digital aid groups rally neighbourly assistance

US communities are seeking ways to fill in the gaps to help neighbours during coronavirus lockdowns.

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    Social distancing has created a new norm of interaction in the US, but its not stopping neighbours from helping one another [David Ryder/Reuters]
    Social distancing has created a new norm of interaction in the US, but its not stopping neighbours from helping one another [David Ryder/Reuters]

    As more people in the United States are placed under shelter across place orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, residents are developing digital-based initiatives to make sure their neighbours stay safe, healthy and connected. 

    "All of a sudden this common good isn't an abstract idea or of a particular political mindset," said Morgan Schmidt, a Presbyterian pastor and one of the moderators of Pandemic Partners - Bend (PPB), a Facebook group that has facilitated community aid since March 12.

    The crisis "affects all of us", Schmidt told Al Jazeera.

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    More than 801,000 people have been infected with the novel coronavirus worldwide, with more than 160,000 cases in the United States.

    While governments are focused on national and statewide responses, individual communities are attempting to fill in the gaps with technology aimed at connecting neighbours and providing assistance for everything from getting groceries and medicine to connecting those who are lonely and need someone to talk to. 

    Pandemic Partners

    PPB, based in Bend, Oregon, a city of about 100,000 people, began with a simple premise: "Being available to help our most vulnerable neighbours," Schmidt said.

    The Facebook group has more than 10,000 members and dozens of posts every hour with people offering or asking for help in daily needs that were met with ease before the pandemic.

    Alex Porter, a 24-year-old Bend resident attending the nursing programme at the Central Oregon Community College, said her experience with the group has opened connections to those in her community.

    "It has been a beautiful demonstration of human-kindness. I was helping one woman who was recovering from a major surgery that had been eating rice for a week and needed groceries," Porter told Al Jazeera. "I was happy to help her and pay for her groceries. I am studying nutrition and tried to help her design a diet to help her heal from her surgery … it took this page for me to meet her and she lives a block away from me."

    Angelina Campbell, a 34-year-old self-employed resident of Bend, told Al Jazeera she has helped several people over the last few weeks, including making food deliveries.

    She echoed Porter's sentiment that PPB is helping connect her community.

    Business has slowed for Campbell, who runs a cleaning business. But one of her clients gave her "a couple hundred dollars to help more people", including those who are not on Facebook.

    Help next door

    While social media provides a wide network of users, there are many who do not have access to or refuse to use their services due to privacy concerns.

    Shahed Amanullah and his teenaged son Haroon created Next Door Helper, a website that allows users to offer help without a social media account.

    Amanullah and Haroon developed Next Door Helper partly as a coding project for Haroon, who is out of school due to widespread cancellations, but largely to provide an outlet for those who want to help but do not have access to - or choose not to use - social media platforms.

    "Not everyone is on these platforms," Amanullah told Al Jazeera, citing problems with access to reliable internet connections but also concerns about data collection. Users are not required to put anything more than an email address.

    "I didn't want to collect more information than is needed for this," Amunallah said.

    Amanullah said he "wanted to do something that's scaled. The level of the problem … is immense. I also wanted something that's more active than passive".

    A user registers on Next Door Helper and if anyone has requested assistance nearby, they receive an email alert. That way, the service actively reminds users that help is needed.

    "It will come find you," Amanullah said.

    Another driving design philosophy for Next Door Helper is that it does not require there to be contact between the two parties, nor does it encourage any financial transactions.

    "Money means contact. Also, I don't want people to have a bad incentive," Amanullah said.

    About 2,500 users have signed up for Next Door Helper since its official launch on March 22.

    "It's an experiment," Amanullah said. Next Door help is "going to change over time as people react to it".

    He is happy for efforts on Facebook or anywhere else, but with Next Door Helper, Amanullah wants "to focus on pure altruism".

    The world 'will be very different'

    For Schmidt, moderator of PPB, these concerns are legitimate. But social media such as Facebook, with its 1.69bn users, is an "easy point of access".

    "We've been asking the question from the very beginning," Schmidt said. While the concern was less about data, but "more from accessibility perspective. To even be able to ask for help on Facebook is a privileged thing."

    PPB is working to create a phone line to ask for help for users without internet access. The group is also doing its part to facilitate the creation of similar groups in other communities worldwide.

    "We've made our best practices publicly available", Schmidt said, though they are not "micromanaging" these organisations.

    "This is an incredibly leveling event. There's no one that's excluded or not at risk of getting sick or having a loved-one get sick. I don't know that we've truly experienced something like this, not in my lifetime."

    The situation calls for widespread action, and any platform people are using to connect is viable. Hopefully, Schmidt said, the severity of the issue will allow people to see "human dignity" in everyone.

    "Regardless of Pandemic Partners, I think the world will be very different after we come out of our homes."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News