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Building community resilience across Arizona in the face of the coronavirus

Knowledge Exchange for Resilience fellows on how Arizonans can help build capacity and boost community resilience

photo of Phoenix skyline
March 23, 2020

A shock felt across the state, responses to the current spread of the novel coronavirus have changed everyday life in Arizona. Online classes, canceled events, state of emergency mandates and social distancing have become the norm. 

How does adapting as individuals affect the community as a whole? Social distancing has forced many to make critical choices for themselves and their families. During this pandemic, those decisions carry a heightened impact on overall community resilience.      

Melanie Gall, co-director for the Center for Emergency Management at Arizona State University and Knowledge Exchange for Resilience fellow, is a geographer studying the interaction between natural hazards and society. She works closely with local and federal emergency management agencies to plan and mobilize during disasters. In her lifetime, she anticipates never seeing a disaster like this again, even after conducting postdisaster fieldwork in Haiti, New Jersey, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.  

"This is way beyond what any system can handle or plan for. This is where it's all-hands-on-deck, including the community members," Gall said."When you look at the research and past disasters, we know that disasters tend to bring people together and to bring out the best in people. But at the same time, it also reveals shortcomings in our emergency management system or society."

Community resilience involves our collective capacity to address and adapt to things like health threats, social disruption, economic trauma and environmental disasters.

"The nature of this kind of shock and especially the way this particular pandemic is spreading is that it highlights the fact that how we respond as individuals is incredibly connected to how we fare as a community," said Patricia Solis, executive director for Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU. 

When communities come together to share knowledge and resources, it creates an opportunity to discover sources of strength and areas of need. Communities that invest in meaningful responses will build their capacity to adapt during hard times now and in the future.     

Knowledge Exchange for Resilience fellows work together to bridge the university and community to strengthen community resilience. Besides the day-to-day work to respond to the pandemic, they convene to share knowledge, data and resources.

Here are their tips on how you can help build capacity and boost community resilience.     

"Take time to get to know who your neighbors are, ask them what they need and reach out to the people around you in need," said Knowledge Exchange for Resilience fellow Julia Matthies. "You don't have to volunteer somewhere to impact community resilience, you just have to be engaged in your neighborhood and with the people around you."     

Matthies, director of Ozanam Manor for the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, works with vulnerable populations like veterans experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. She runs a 60-bed transitional shelter that provides resources for older adults and people with disabilities. They offer classrooms, a computer lab and a food pantry to help people experiencing homelessness rebuild community and life skills.

With new public health recommendations and requirements, a once-bustling dining room sits quiet, but the surge and needs are still there. Matthies says that the Society of St. Vincent De Paul has joined other homeless providers weekly to share knowledge, resources and needs.  

A connected approach among local providers is helping them respond faster, but they need additional support. She says supporting your neighbors translates across sectors, and it's going to make a difference.  

Thaddaeus Gassie, a homeless management system information specialist for the Crisis Response Network and Knowledge Exchange for Resilience fellow, works on the data and information management side of providing resources for populations experiencing homelessness.  

"If we want to strengthen community resilience, there needs to be a community identity," Gassie said.  

Community identity begins with becoming aware of who your communities are, their needs and your mindset about who is responsible for what. He explains that there is currently a massive disconnect between the public and the social services sector. Social services are often seen as a zero-sum game, meaning that individual hard work is benefitting someone else who isn't trying hard enough.     

One of the most significant needs the social service sector is facing is finding a space for sick people to recover.

"If we have companies or businesses willing to donate space, it's an opportunity for the private sector to engage with the social services sector," Matthies said. On a granular level, social services always need donations. Food and first-aid supplies are all required to continue to support vulnerable populations.    

Why should you support space for homeless individuals who are sick to recover? In any situation, if infected people recover in isolation, it benefits public health as a whole. It lessens the spread, and it allows everyone else to continue proper prevention like hand-washing and social distancing.  

"We are caught in myths of finding individualism, and the cowboy imagery where you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Everyone benefits even if it doesn't look like you are," Gassie said. 

Overall, every individual contributes to building community resilience. Everyone is experiencing disruptions in their everyday life, and responses to those disruptions are going to determine the larger ripple-effect.   

"Health care workers are self-isolating, even from their own families. They are working 12- to 15-hour shifts, and then they come home and self-isolate out of fear of infecting their own families, so they live in the garage. Unless you have some personal connection with friends or family who work in the medical area, I think a lot of people lack the imagination of what it means for health care workers. Not just as part of the day to day jobs and duties, but what it also means that their personal life," Gall said.    

Other first responders like fire and law enforcement are out there as well. Gall encourages that people become more aware and continue to share the stories of those on the front lines.     

"I think the connective tissue is social media and the journalists — unless you have people working in these areas in your family, then you won't hear these stories. What's important is amplifying these stories. The amplification of these stories tells you what's happening on the ground versus what maybe some officials might tell you," Gall said.

How are you playing a role in strengthening community resilience? What are the moments of community resilience you've witnessed recently? Share community resilience moments with us using #ResilienceMatters and tagging @asuresilience as we document these stories that will help us become more resilient now and for the future.    

The ASU Knowledge Exchange for Resilience is supported by Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust.

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