Amid a completely surreal weekend when the novel coronavirus leaped Montana’s state borders and shifted, suddenly, from vague threat to in-our-face reality, I was charmed by a small note on Facebook. You can see it above.

Wow, I thought. How thoughtful is that? A little act of generosity from our library friends in Clancy and Montana City.

And I wondered: Which way will all this go? Will we take the high road, motivated by selflessness and community-minded generosity? Or will we take all the toilet paper and Purell we can grab and retreat into our bunkers until the all-clear whistle?

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, aid agencies in Philadelphia pleaded for volunteers to help care for the ill and their children. “But volunteers did not come,” wrote historian John M. Barry a century later. So it went, Barry noted, in Luce County, Michigan, New Haven, Connecticut, and Perry County, Kentucky: “Nobody was coming in, nobody would bring food in, nobody came to visit.”

But that wasn’t the only mode of behavior. Laura Spinney, a journalist and author of, “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World,” told the Los Angeles Times recently that “logically, rationally, the best way to bring a pandemic or epidemic to an end quickly with the minimum number of casualties is that everybody isolate themselves because then the virus can’t spread and it dies out. But actually, and in some ways heartwarmingly though not very rationally, our instinct is to help each other. You see that very often [during the 1918 pandemic] people went to each other’s aid — and not just family and friends, but also strangers.”

I’m neither an epidemiologist nor a behavioral psychologist, but my money is on both outcomes. 

Right now, the decision to pull back from civic life is both reasonable and, yes, generous. “We know people can pass this virus along before they’re symptomatic,” says Val Colenso, pastor of the United Methodist Churches in Boulder and Clancy. “So we’re not socially distancing for ourselves, we’re doing it for everyone who is at higher risk. This is not self-preservation, it’s altruism. We’re doing it out of love of neighbor, because we love each other. 

And very quickly, we will move into shared problem-solving mode. One of the good things about being the 49th state to diagnose COVID-19 patients is, we’ve had time to watch and learn. The rest of the world now has some experience with this challenge, and it’s starting to innovate. Montanans will take those insights and adapt them quickly here.

There will plenty of problems to take on, as the pandemic sets off a series of interconnected systemic effects. “There are so many factors we see coming into play,” says Mary Rutherford, president and CEO of the Montana Community Foundation in Helena. Among them:

  • With public schools shuttered for the next two weeks, staff are figuring out how to get food to at-risk kids who depend on schools for low-cost or free meals. 
  • Teachers also are wrestling with how to deliver online classes to students who don’t have broadband connections – or computers.
  • Food banks will see greater demand, and may run short on supplies.
  • The area’s elderly, among those at greatest risk, will need to get food and regular medical care without entering crowded places.
  • Hourly workers, who typically can’t telecommute, will need child care for younger kids who now won’t be school. 
  • Many of those workers, who often don’t make much to start, will lose work as business dries up at restaurants and retailers.

And, of course, we’ll need library books. Delivered curbside. With a smiley face.  

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