We never thought we’d see the day when Manitobans stopped volunteering.
The voluntary support of good causes is as much a tradition here as snow shovelling in winter, dining outdoors on long summer evenings, or yet another reunion tour by Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman.
It’s why Manitoba is regularly among the top Canadian provinces when statistical reports chronicle the per-capita percentage of volunteers. In this province, we put compassion into action. Or, more accurately, we used to.
The cause of a recent sharp downturn in altruistic behaviour is not a sudden hardening of our collective hearts. It’s that infernal COVID-19.
Manitoba has joined a global fear of the potentially deadly virus that is lurking wherever carriers — some of whom don’t even know they have it — have touched surfaces or coughed up respiratory droplets.
Public-health experts have warned us to cocoon indoors. The novel coronavirus danger is invisible and, because we don’t know who might be carrying it, the safest default position is to remain wary of others and avoid them, an attitude that directly contradicts the licence plate motto "Friendly Manitoba."
The result is that a lengthy list of Manitoba institutions that rely on the work of unpaid task-handlers find themselves suddenly without needed help. A partial list includes people who pack boxes at food banks, serve at soup kitchens and shelters, drive seniors to appointments, visit people in hospitals and nursing homes, and serve the clients of a wide range of non-profits and charities.
Certainly, no one blames the volunteers for hitting "pause" on the commendable work which, in normal times, is the backbone of compassion in our communities. The grim directives from public-health officials are to withdraw from up-close physical interaction to lessen the chance of spreading the virus.
Quick question: what is the opposite of social distancing? It’s social connectiveness, and that’s what volunteers specialize in but cannot currently deliver.
There are two demographic groups in particular that traditionally offer rich deposits of volunteers, but whose members are now unable to raise their hands when the calls for help are sounded: senior citizens who are staying home because their age makes them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19; and faith communities that have suspended the gatherings that usually inspire group enthusiasm to put the multi-faith beliefs of compassion into hands-on acts of volunteerism.
The people who have been faithful volunteers will themselves feel the effect of the current freeze, because they will no longer get the non-monetary rewards that helping others brings. People don’t volunteer because they have to; they do it because they want to. Now sidelined, many will miss the feeling of giving back, of being needed, of doing something worthwhile for other Manitobans.
It’s critical in an emergency to maintain a realistic context, and this is true with the forced sidelining of this province’s ambassadors of kindness.
First, there are creative ways to volunteer while still observing social-distancing requirements. Instead of visiting in person, we can check in with needy people via email and old-fashioned telephone calls. We can drop off food and supplies on the porches of isolated people. We can increase our financial donations to charities that are now struggling to cope without volunteers.
Second, it’s temporary. It’s not currently known when the requirement for social distancing will be relaxed, but it will eventually end and release the pent-up enthusiasm of volunteers who are eager to help again.
Volunteerism is not dead. It will return as soon as the doctors give Manitoba a clean bill of health.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
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