COVID Diary: The Kindness of Strangers

Lene shares surprising ways she's seen people looking out for the pandemic's most vulnerable.

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

When things go sideways on a large scale in movies and books, there’s rioting, selfishness, and mayhem. It’s such an ingrained part of our entertainment mindset that we can’t be blamed for expecting the worst when the COVID-19 pandemic took off. But instead of a global reenactment of “Lord of the Flies,” something entirely different happened. Most of us found ways of banding together while staying apart, making a concerted effort to reach out and make this modern plaguetime a little easier for each other. Although the hard times are far from over (especially for those of us who are high risk due to rheumatoid arthritis and other types of chronic illness), these moments of love have been a big part of what’s helping me to cope. While we’re on the other side of the initial insanity, we really have to acknowledge that this is our new normal. Looking back on the last six months, I’m so hopeful about what’s to come. Here are some of the highlights that have helped me.

Before flour went AWOL and rolls of toilet paper became as precious as rubies, the first items to go were medical supplies. Masks, gloves, and alcohol swabs were nowhere to be found. We panicked, all of us, and the urge to protect ourselves and our families made it hard to think rationally. That left a lot of people with chronic illness without the supplies they use in their daily lives to safely self-inject medication and prevent infection.

Then something wonderful happened. In early March, Anna Legassie, 36, from Boston, shared her frustration about not being able to find the supplies she needed on her Instagram account and others responded with similar problems. And then, people started sharing. “Even patients facing supply shortages were quick to offer up items in their reserve to others,” Anna recounted in an email interview. “I worked to connect people willing to share supplies with those in need and arranged for things like hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, alcohol prep pads, and masks to be sent directly from one patient to another and reimbursing shipping costs when needed.” The generosity of the chronic illness community enabled a lot of anxious people to continue taking their medication and stay safe during those early days of the pandemic.

Anna is no longer involved in facilitating sharing supplies, but she believes that this kind of mutual support and generosity will continue. “Until that supply chain is stabilized and immunocompromised people are given priority access to those items, patients will continue to ration supplies and rely on impromtu networks when needed,” she said.

Distanced Messages and Unexpected Gifts

For a while in my neighborhood, the monotony of isolating at home was broken every evening at 7:30 p.m. with clanging and banging of pots and pans. It was an expression of gratitude toward frontline workers, especially those in healthcare, but it quickly became something more to me. Proof that even during the thick of quarantine, I wasn’t alone. It became a joyous marking of living through another day, and a source of gratitude (for once) for loud neighbors.

We’ve also found other ways to tell each other that we are in this together. Friends and family have dinner together on Zoom, wave from the sidewalk, or drop care packages on the porch for those stuck at home. Dianne Guenther, 60, from Ohio, takes medication that suppresses her immune system and was afraid to leave home. “My friend Evelyn stopped by unexpectedly about three weeks into the worldwide pandemic,” she shared on Facebook. “Nothing says ‘I Care’ like a package of toilet paper, soap, and a Diet Coke, my fav beverage!”

Perfect strangers have stepped up, as well, offering help with shopping to those who are more vulnerable to the virus. Marcelle Kors from Vancouver, Canada told me on Facebook that “when the news started about the pandemic, signs and notes went up offering shopping and other services to those who need it ... So reassuring on more than one level.”

The way we are helping each other isn’t limited to the practical, we’ve also been helping each other cope. All over social media, we’ve seen photos of sidewalk-chalk messages of encouragement, rocks placed in unexpected places and painted with flowers, hearts and loving words, and posters with goofy dad jokes pinned to light poles on the street. One of my favorites is the way different areas use humor to explain the necessary six-foot physical distance. Here in Canada, it’s a hockey stick, it’s a kangaroo in Australia, and the Japanese owner of my local convenience store explains it as four ravens, noting “it’s very hard to get ravens to line up like this.”

It’s the little things, the saying goes. So many of these moments that have made us smile or feel a bit stronger have served as stitches knitting us all together as a community. Our efforts to be apart show the commitment we have to keep each other safe, and in our hearts and souls, we are closer than ever — to the people we love, as well as to the strangers who have become friends. It’s something all of us can appreciate, but it can be even more important when you are housebound for reasons of high risk, as well as chronic illness and pain. The rest of the world have tried our daily lives on for size and reacted with compassion. It gives us an anchor point for keeping the conversation going and makes me hopeful for creating a better future understanding of what is like to live with chronic conditions.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.