Sixth-grader Jacob Chanthavong sorts canned food and places it in boxes last December at North Middle School in Lake Stevens. His social skills class helped with delivery to the Lake Stevens Community Food Bank. Even amid the Covid-19 outbreak, donations to food banks are an example of the kind of social connections we must continue to make. (Dan Bates / Herald file photo)

Sixth-grader Jacob Chanthavong sorts canned food and places it in boxes last December at North Middle School in Lake Stevens. His social skills class helped with delivery to the Lake Stevens Community Food Bank. Even amid the Covid-19 outbreak, donations to food banks are an example of the kind of social connections we must continue to make. (Dan Bates / Herald file photo)

Commentary: This ‘vaccine’ for what ails us is ready now

‘Social distancing’ doesn’t require us to ignore our community; we need each other more than ever.

By Scott Forslund / For The Herald

The one thing rising faster than confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide may be the fixation and fear associated with the term itself. Covid-19, a term which essentially didn’t exist in our public consciousness three weeks ago, now generates well over 1.5 billion results in a Google search.

With hopes of a Covid-19 vaccine a year or more into the future, it seems we’re all taking steps available to us now: brushing up our practices of “social distancing.” Rediscovering the significance of the term “rubbing elbows.” Increasingly avoiding large gatherings. Thinking twice about what comes home on our avocados and our Amazon Prime boxes.

Social connectedness: Caution is a good thing, especially while we get a better read on the prevalence of this virus in our communities.

However, while protecting ourselves from viral exposure is necessary, we must not inadvertently isolate ourselves further from family and community we need, and who need us. Social connectedness is a health priority, too. We’ve just got to be smart about how we do it.

Unlike the coronavirus, social isolation is one threat we have the power to eliminate right now. In fact, it is intriguing to think that in times notable for political polarization and uncivil discourse, the coronavirus could actually be a force as great as anything to bring us back together.

As a community, what is our recent record for social connectedness?

Monitoring our well-being: One answer can be found in the Snohomish County Health & Well-being Monitor, developed by and for the people of Snohomish County. This community well-being measurement tool was devised to capture the voices of communities across our county and describe our arc of health and well-being over time, on terms defined by our community itself.

In nearly a year of community-based participatory research in 2015, involving Familias Unidas, the NAACP, Tulalip Tribes, Minority Achievers Alums, YMCA members, low-income housing residents, seniors and others, 24 answers emerged to the question: What does health and well-being mean to you?

Those 24 attributes factored down to six crucial ‘Dimensions of Health”: physical health; neighborhood and environment; security and basic needs; worklife, learning and growth; mental emotional and spiritual well-being; and relationships and social connections.

All six are important, but some may be more equal than others. Specifically, if you have thriving relationships and social connections, it seems all the rest may be easier to acquire or preserve.

Yet, as important as human connection is, even before this worldwide health scare, our performance as a community, especially in recent years, has been sobering. Between 2017 and 2019, a period when unemployment fell to historic lows and the stock market rose 26 percent, measured well-being in Snohomish County declined.

A big contributor was a measurable decline in overall satisfaction with mental and emotional well-being, which fell by 2.8 percent. That was accompanied by a bevy of worrisome signals. It turns out people are getting together 9.8 percent less frequently with friends and loved ones than two years ago. We’re reaching out to greet our neighbors 7.7 percent less often. Our reliance on the importance of faith and spiritual communities fell by 11.5 percent. At an individual level, poor mental health days rose by 27 percent, and debilitating health days, by 24 percent. At a community level, our sense of belonging fell by 8.5 percent.

Those among us experiencing active isolation and “othering” in the form of discrimination more than doubled, from 12 percent in 2016-17, to 26 percent in 2018. By 2019 that nearly doubled — to 45 percent — among people of color and people who speak a language other than English at home. And 91 percent of those who experienced discrimination reported that in Snohomish County, these acts occurred as frequently or more often than the year before.

And therein lies an opportunity shining brightly before us.

What if a month from now, we successfully heed the advice to reduce our exposure; and also find new ways to increase our collective connections with family, friends and community?

At the precise moment when our public health officials are appropriately cautioning against gathering in large groups, it is also more pressing now than ever to find new and creative ways to maintain human connections with family, neighbors, friends, co-workers: as well as those who are not normally visible to us.

Ways to maintain connections: Get creative. Go for a walk; and pick up the phone to connect with your mom, with gratitude that you have one. Drop off some soup, chocolate and a “neighborly love” note on the porch of a shut-in neighbor. And use this moment freed up from large gatherings to establish or re-establish connections in other ways to the broader community we’re all a part of, and mutually dependent upon.

Here’s one practical example of building connections with community. I have four sinks in my home, and soap for every faucet. I also have several bottles of hand sanitizer. Jim Dean is the executive director of Interfaith Association, a small but mighty organization addressing the needs of local families experiencing homelessness. Jim’s clients don’t have sinks and soap close at hand. And as of this past Tuesday, Jim could no longer find any hand sanitizer on any shelves, anywhere.

How easy it was last week to drop off some hand sanitizer at Interfaith’s offices in Everett for Jim; who immediately put them to dramatically better use in the hands of families he serves. I am dropping off an extra container of antibacterial wipes to Van Kuno, who’ll share it with her Refugee & Immigrant Services Northwest clients tomorrow. With 830,000 residents in our county, individual actions on a large scale can move mountains.

Looking for ways to enhance community connections? Jump online at the LiveWellLocal.org community resource hub, and type “Shelter.” You’ll get 68 local programs that shelter the homeless among us (including Interfaith). Likewise, typing “Food” turns up 178 local programs; “assistance” turns up 296.

A second community resource, GiveWellLocal.org (note the Give, rather than Live) makes it easy for more than 2,200 hyperlocal programs serving our community to signal to you what they need.

Jump online. Post your need, or scan through and commit to meet a need. Pick what appeals to you. Then pick up the phone.

If you’d like to make a general monetary donation, a “Give Money” link on GiveWellLocal.org takes you straight to a Coronavirus Response Fund administered by the Community Foundation of Snohomish County, in partnership with the Snohomish Health District, Snohomish County government, and United Way, with seed funding by community partners including Premera, BECU and others.

We can do this.

Yes, listen to the public health warnings, and heed them, to protect yourself, those you love, and your community.

At the same time, commit to ward off some of the fear and isolation with one extra daily, creative act of human connection and love. It’s a prescription for transformation.

We don’t need to wait for a vaccine for that.

Scott Forslund is executive director of the Providence Institute for a Healthier Community, which developed and provides the Snohomish County Health & Well-being Monitor, and director of technology and innovation for Providence St. Joseph Health.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentry gave an inoccrect figure for the number of results for the term “social distancing” in a Google search. It is now correct.

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