Meeting the challenge of COVID-19 as a community

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In frightening times, it is perhaps a universal feeling to prioritize the safety of our family over all else. To that end, we draw close to our immediate community and too frequently turn our backs on others. Our year-round community is being challenged at the moment. We have real concerns about resources and exposure to COVID-19 that should not be taken lightly. On the other hand, we as a community need to think about our words (spoken and written) and our actions.

In recent weeks as COVID-19 infection has spread throughout the country, there are more and more reports of ill-feeling toward non year-round residents moving to rural communities. This is particularly true in areas that have a tourist economy with a lot of second homes such as Martha’s Vineyard. It is assumed that these non year-round residents are moving from areas with higher rates of COVID-19 infection and that they may be infected and will potentially infect others and use up limited resources.

The immediate sentiment is understandable, that is “this is our community and they are bringing COVID-19 here.” I think it important that all visitors and returning Islanders self-quarantine for 14 days and let the local boards of health agents know that they are here. However, I suspect that such measures of self-quarantine would not stop the negative statements.

So who are these visitors to Martha’s Vineyard who are potentially bringing disease? Some of them are our parents and our children and they are coming to live with us. Some are Islanders returning from the winter in Florida where there is a high infection rate. Some are seasonal residents, our neighbors, our friends who are coming to live in their own houses. They are members of our community. In fact this place that we choose to live would not be the same without them. Some are visitors who are renting houses because they may be at high risk and feel safer here and, it is true, have the financial means to do so.

Martha’s Vineyard is a largely rural area where it is relatively easy to self-quarantine and socially isolate. While beds are limited, we have a modern well-staffed hospital. We know that hospitals in urban areas are overwhelmed with patients. Who are we to criticize someone who lives in an apartment in a crowded city for coming here? If we were able, would we not do the same in similar circumstances? Would you tell your closest friend not to come here? The fear that we feel for our safety and family is the same fear felt by our visitors

Again, I don’t seek to minimize the community’s concerns.  We do have limited hospital resources. All people coming to the Island should understand and consider this before making the decision to travel. But no community has adequate hospital resources when there is a pandemic.

These are frightening times. It is probably human nature to want someone to blame. But the answer is not blaming the outsider. It is realizing that the COVID-19 infection is here on Martha’s Vineyard with or without visitors. We have 11 lab-documented cases and there are more in the community. We all, year-round residents and visitors alike, have to maintain vigilant social distancing — to limit the number of people who become ill. I hope that when this pandemic has been brought to heel, that the Island can look back on its words and actions during these frightening times and feel pride in the way that we responded as a community — working together to maintain the safety of all.

Dr. Henry Nieder is a family doctor living on Martha’s Vineyard,