Gavin Newsom's new volunteer corps may save lives — but is the risk too high?

California's governor launches an ambitious volunteer program to fight pandemic — a great idea, but at what price?

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published April 22, 2020 8:20PM (EDT)

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks in front of the hospital ship USNS Mercy (Carolyn Cole-Pool/Getty Images)
California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks in front of the hospital ship USNS Mercy (Carolyn Cole-Pool/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Californians for All, a volunteer corps that aims to match healthy people with nonprofits and individuals that need help during this pandemic. The initiative borrows ideas presented in the Green New Deal proposals, which suggested assembling an army of volunteers to work together to improve the environment and adapt to the climate crisis. Except this time, it's to help those who need it most during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Across the state, Californians are asking how they can help their neighbors during this crisis and we want to channel that energy into our Californians for All service initiative," Newsom said at Tuesday's press conference. "Whether it's volunteering at a food bank to feed older Californians, blood drives or supporting local nonprofits, there's no shortage of opportunities for Californians to step up and meet the moment."

There have been numerous reports of nonprofits across the country that have seen a steep decline in both donations and volunteers since stay-at-home orders have been in place. This is clearly a difficult problem to solve, as many nonprofit organizations cater to underserved communities at great risk, both economically and from the virus itself. The New York Times reported earlier this month that food banks are seeing an unprecedented rise in demand that they're not equipped to handle, even under the best of circumstances. The decline in resources isn't because people don't want to help. It's because of social distancing requirements, stay-at-home orders and massive losses in employment, making many people financially unable to give. The website for the California initiative emphasizes that people who have experienced symptoms related to COVID-19 shouldn't volunteer themselves, and each volunteering opportunity will require people to stand six feet apart.

Although there are obvious risks, this kind of volunteer campaign could help people from succumbing to the despair and hopelessness that is becoming all too familiar with this situation. Social distancing is lonely. Many people who live alone have gone without seeing loved ones or feeling a human touch for six weeks, and can't easily turn to their communities or religious leaders for support. People may feel helpless, experts say, and in lockdown there's no easy way to alleviate the toxic stress that comes with that feeling of helplessness. Sitting at home and doing nothing, sulking in all of our distress, only amplifies these feelings.

"The more focused on ourselves we become, it snowballs nowhere good," Christine Carter, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told me in March. Helping others during a crisis can help reverse the flight-or-fight response — a physiological reaction that can overwhelm both body and mind in response to a harmful event — and help return the nervous system back to normal.

Beyond that specific response, the pandemic is clearly taking a toll on people's mental health. A new report published by mental health researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) expressed concerns about isolation and suicides.

A program like this could also help save lives. According to the Pew Research Center, only 57 percent of Americans say they know some of their neighbors. In urban areas, only 24 percent of those surveyed said they know all or most of their neighbors, compared to 40 percent in rural areas. Daniel P. Aldrich, professor and director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University, began studying resilience in disasters after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He has found that communities save each other more than governments do. In a March interview with Salon, he gave the example of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, when more than 700 people died in five days. "The people who passed away, it wasn't really a question of age or race or demographics, it was a question of social connectedness," he said. "People who were just vulnerable, like the elderly, they didn't necessarily die because of that, it was when that vulnerability intersected with social isolation."

Indeed, this is why many state governors have been reminding residents at every press conference to check in on each other. In China, where the virus first took hold, reports show that civilian volunteers played a critical role in slowing the viral spread, suggesting that a program like this can be helpful. But it doesn't come without consequences: In China, some volunteers became infected themselves. A program like this would clearly be most effective if we had a widespread antibody testing program, which renders Newsom's announcement overly sunny in tone for this moment. It's great that California's government wants to organize healthy people to help others. That will benefit all involved. But until we have significant levels of national testing, these volunteers — like all workers on the front lines of the pandemic — will be putting themselves at risk.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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