March 30, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press

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Harnessing the power of the people

Manitobans proving eager to offer their unique skills and gifts to others in this time of need

Opinion

There is a lot we will learn about ourselves and the society we have built, in the weeks to come. There is a lot we have learned already. Some of these pandemic lessons will be almost unbearably painful; others will sparkle with hope, offering direction on how to emerge more resilient than ever before.

For instance, consider what we are learning now, about the depth of our ability to care for each other.

Almost from the minute the scope of the pandemic crisis became evident to most North Americans, from those first strange days where we realized that life as we knew it was about to change, the most powerful force to rise up and meet the challenge has been the helpers. They are everywhere, if you know where to look.

On Facebook, people set up groups to seek and receive assistance to get through daily life. Journalists covering the crisis opened their inboxes to find readers reaching out, asking how they could help people struggling to get by. Non-profits have seen volunteers stepping up to donate food or money or hygiene supplies.

Volunteers hand out sandwiches that were donated to support people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo files)

Volunteers hand out sandwiches that were donated to support people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo files)

These efforts will have to continue for a very long time. The crisis has only just started in Canada, and every week the need will rise. What ought to give us hope is how many people have recognized that the coming months will be painful, and want to do whatever they can to help ease a neighbour's burden.

Which is what makes the province's latest initiative so inspired. On Monday, Premier Brian Pallister announced the launch of a new website, helpnextdoormb.ca, which is designed to connect willing community volunteers with folks who need help of various kinds, such as grocery delivery or picking up medications.

The website is, as far as I know, the first provincial effort quite like it, and made by and for Manitobans. In partnership with local software developers, the non-profit North Forge Technology Exchange built the site in just five days. At first glance, minutes after the premier announced it, the site looked straightforward and easy to use.

It's a great idea. The greatest untapped resource in Manitoba isn't its government, but its people: there are roughly 1.4 million of us, an incredible wealth of human resources. We don't have to be experts in responding to epidemics: between all of us who are able, we can get a whole lot of the crucial little things done.

Frankly, after the pandemic eventually passes, the helpnextdoormb.ca website should stay. The need has always been there for this sort of good faith connection and mutual aid: people were vulnerable before this virus, and one way to honour the lessons of crisis would be to sustain the momentum of care we are now building.

Sheilah Lee Restall started the One Neighbourhood Initiative to connect volunteers with those most at-risk of COVID-19 to get them supplies they need. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Sheilah Lee Restall started the One Neighbourhood Initiative to connect volunteers with those most at-risk of COVID-19 to get them supplies they need. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press files)

These are days of hope, in that way. They are days that invite us to rise to the occasion, to make public use of our privately honed skills, to contribute where we can. With the established patterns of life disrupted so completely, this sometimes requires some creative thinking, and that is where the possibilities to help are endless.

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At a time like this, we believe it’s important to turn to our readers.

You are the ones living through this state of emergency. You are the ones adapting to the challenges of COVID-19. You are the ones impacted by the novel coronavirus.

And that’s why we are launching a special experiment with a reader-generated column that will allow us to share your experiences, your thoughts and your concerns about the pandemic. In short, please tell us your stories during this historic time.

Using this form on our website, you will find an easy way to put down in words your contribution. Our editors will then take it from there and compile a running feed that will help our community come together.

Just look at how folks have adapted to meet the needs of the moment already. Last week, local distilleries Patent 5 and Capital K switched from crafting booze to making hand sanitizer, whipping up litres of the stuff within hours and taking donations of raw materials, such as glycerin and hydrogen peroxide, to keep churning out more.

Patent 5 is distributing the resulting hand sanitizer free of charge to organizations working with vulnerable people. Capital K is doing the same for health-care workers and others on the front lines. Across the world other distilleries have similarly put their equipment and skills to use for the public good in this way.

That's just one example of a creative way to repurpose existing skills to meet the need. There are countless more.

For instance, on Monday morning, Saskatchewan NDP leader Ryan Meili, a doctor, held a livestream Q&A about COVID-19 targeted at children, inspired by the prime minister's address to kids the previous day. Parents wrote in with their kids' questions, which Meili answered in clear and easy-to-understand ways.

Elsewhere, graphic designers chipped in with posters for people to put on their doors, noting that residents inside have a high-risk condition such as chronic illness or an autoimmune disorder, requesting visitors stay away. Artists created downloadable colouring pages to keep kids busy while their parents work.

The greatest untapped resource in Manitoba isn't its government, but its people: there are roughly 1.4 million of us, an incredible wealth of human resources. We don't have to be experts in responding to epidemics: between all of us who are able, we can get a whole lot of the crucial little things done.

Across North America, I have seen veterinarians offering to provide services to folks out of work due to pandemic containment measures; experts on every possible subject giving online courses; and social workers offering advice on how to apply for unemployment insurance or navigate similar complex public systems.

The sheer diversity of these individual volunteer initiatives is dazzling. It is also a stirring reminder of the fact that everyone has some sort of gift to offer the world. It could be art or knowledge, technical skill or physical labour, or simply a capacity to be present and reach out to people in need of support.

Or, of course, there's always cash. In recent weeks, ordering takeout has gone from an occasional indulgence to an act of critical support for suffering local businesses. Buying gift cards and tipping generously, for those of us who are financially able to do so, can also be a key way to contribute to the overall well-being of the community.

Whatever way we choose to contribute, the time is now to get it done. If the pandemic has taught us anything in just these last few weeks, it's that within our community we already have all the gifts that we need to sustain us, from our skills and know-how to a simple willingness to do whatever more vulnerable people need done.

Let's not let that energy falter. Let's keep it up. And one day, when we sit down to write the legacy of this crisis, it will begin like this: when we were called to deliver the best of ourselves for the public good, Manitobans rose up to help.

 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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