In times of crisis solidarity spreads like a virus

Giedrė delivering some rims to a health care facility. Photo provided by Giedrė
Giedrė delivering some rims to a health care facility. Photo provided by Giedrė

If these past few weeks were part of the plot from a zombie film, we would have barely made it through the first act. Nonetheless, according to movie-logic, we should have already started slipping into a Mad-Max kind of scenario by this point. Fortunately, that is not happening (yet). 

It is not as if we lack grim examples, in fact, you could argue that most of the media coverage on this emergency, clouded by a daily global death toll update and war-like language, is trying to accommodate reality into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

No doubt, a crisis can bring out the worst in us, yet it can also do the opposite. Some, despite the quarantine, are making an effort to prove the latter. The following is a small account of some of you out there.

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“Homemade” state of the art technology

The scene of healthcare workers having to store their single-use protective gear after it has been already used once is painful and shocking to witness; however, it is not one of a kind. While countries try to outbid one another in the international market to restock on medical supplies, the truth is that many health workers remain unequipped to face the pandemic.

Giedrė showing the rims printed at her house. Photo provided by Giedrė i
Giedrė showing the rims printed at her house. Photo provided by Giedrė

The scarcity of medical supplies is not an easy problem to address. The sudden surge in demand has overwhelmed large scale providers who are also struggling with a shortage of workers due to the coronavirus itself. In response, governments are encouraging local industries to modify and repurpose their assembly lines to produce the much-needed supplies. Still, enthusiastic volunteers and small scale companies are utilizing an alternative method to help as much as possible.

“Even though I was teaching (online) and taking care of my kids at home – just like everyone else right now- I felt uneasy as if I was not doing enough. Later that week, I saw that one of my acquaintances posted the photo of a rim for a medical face shield, that he was able to produce at home using a 3D printer. Immediately I thought that was something I could help with,” says Giedrė Slivko, one of the teachers at Vilnius International School’s Design Department.

Although a few years ago, 3D printers were quite expensive, in recent years, some models have become relatively affordable. This technology allows users to turn any 3D digital model into a full physical object. 

 “After I saw this post about the rim, I thought: ‘So we have some 3D printers at school, why not use them?’ I then wrote to my colleague Miki (Ambrozy) from the design department to check if we had what is necessary to do it, and soon after I got in touch with the school’s director; Rebecca Juras, to see if the school’s authorities would be willing to support this project,” Giedrė tells me.

Rebecca not only said yes but furthermore, she allowed both Giedrė and Miki to take two printers back home so they would not have to risk going out. “I think in moments such as these, we are obliged by the school’s principles to help in any way possible,” says Rebecca about her initial thoughts when first consulted on Giedrė’s initiative.

The first time I was asking, ‘Can we do that?’ I was very enthusiastic but also a little bit scared to get ‘No’ for an answer, but then when Rebecca said ‘yes,’ I knew we could set it up, commented Giedrė. 

The type of printers Giedrė and Mat borrowed from the school are capable of printing two rims every 5 hours. With three printers at their disposal (one left at the school for Rebecca to manage), they are able to produce something around 25 rims per day. While it is working, the printer makes as much noise as a vacuum machine, which is quite convenient as it now sits on Giedrė’s living room.

According to her, “My husband and my kids have been very supportive of what I am doing, the only one you could say is not as happy is our cat as we had to install the printer near its favorite sleeping chair. As far as I am concerned, I feel fulfilled.”  

Giedrė’s living room with the printer and the family’s cat. Photo provided by Giedrė iii
Giedrė’s living room with the printer and the family’s cat. Photo provided by Giedrė

Giedrė and her colleagues at Vilnius International School are not doing everything on their own, quite the opposite. Giedrė found the original design files for the rim circulating in a Facebook group called Lithuanian Makers. Within the group, there is also an initiative to connect companies that commercialize the raw materials the rims are made of with those willing to print them. These companies have pledged to provide the printers with the materials for the rims for free as long as printers keep the rims free for health care workers. 

Help among strangers

Not all efforts to help have such a broad scope, even the smallest gesture of kindness can mean the world for someone else, especially when that someone has no one else to turn to.

If you ever been forced to do it, you probably know that there is no right time for flat-hunting; however, a nationwide lockdown might be the worst time of all. Still, Tobias had no choice as he had already agreed to leave his apartment unknowingly that the coronavirus emergency would cut short his time to find a new place.

“I chose the worst possible time to start looking for a new flat – just before this whole thing exploded,” Tobias said. After living for one year in Malta, he had just come back to Vilnius in December. Without any rush, he started seeking a more comfortable place to live just before the Government announced any restriction.  

As the coronavirus outbreak happened, social distancing was quickly adopted by almost everyone. Not surprisingly, most real estate brokers cancelled all visits. After a few days of failed attempts to book a meeting, Tobias found himself on the brink of being practically homeless.

“I had a hard time arranging any viewings with agents at that time (…) I felt like I could not find anything,” recalls Tobias about his mindset at that moment. Apparently out of options, he reached out to Facebook’s Foreigners in Vilnius community for help. The overall reaction surprised him. 

“It was rather touching. A lot of people – Lithuanian and foreign contacted me to help out. Some gave me advicee and others offered me a space on their couch,” One of the messages Tobias received reads: “If you’re literally on the street for the night, you are welcome at my place.” 

Taking into account that because of the virus inviting someone home implies a risk, those who contacted Tobias were really taking a leap of faith. Although eventually, Tobias found a room for rent, all by himself, the people’s response impacted him profoundly. “I mean, such a pandemic is no laughing matter – but I believe a lot of good can come from it, in terms of people’s way of thinking about life.”

Fighting fake news and misinformation 

Tobias and Giedrė’s cases are just a couple of examples regarding social media’s growing relevance in times of crisis. Language barriers motivate certain groups, such as foreigners, to seek others for advice or further information on the latest official announcements. Although there is a significant effort from governmental officials (particularly Vilnius City Council) to make as much information as possible available in English, in some respects, it still feels scarce. 

Alina working from home. Photo provided by Alina iv
Alina working from home. Photo provided by Alina

With a little over 15,000 members, Foreigners in Vilnius is one of the go-to information sources for non-Lithuanian speakers. On its page, it is quite common to see users asking and answering all kinds of questions ranging from immigration law, bank services all the way down to “the best place to” type of discussions. However, over the last few weeks, this exchange changed gears. Translations of official announcements, messages about travel restrictions, and advice on how to prevent the spread of the virus took over.

As one of the page moderators, Alina has been following the group’s shift closely. As a foreigner herself, she knows how important it is for many. “It is not easy to live in another country (…) -many people- reach out to the group to consult on some issues their partners, friends or other close acquaintances don’t have any advice for. (…) Sometimes the group can be a person’s main source of information,” tells me, Alina.

She is not wrong. Even authorities have started to address foreigners through the group’s page. Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius, for example, is sharing frequent updates about his office’s latest actions. 

Yet the role of providing trustworthy information bears some responsibility, one that Alina takes seriously. “Facebook is full of fake news,” She says. “Misinformation can be a matter of life and death for some people. Like everyone else I found myself with the need to do something. I was receiving a lot of private messages from people in the group asking me how they could help; I decided I could help with this.”

To guarantee that the information circulating in the group comes from a credible source Alina uses a fact-checking tool available online. “Some people write me directly asking me to add some complementary information to one of my previous posts when they feel like other users won’t pay attention to a message if they just publish it themselves.”

Discovering yourself as a volunteer

Martynas had never volunteered before in his life neither imagined he would ever do it. In spite of that, he could not avoid feeling inspired by the surging initiatives to help he saw online after the coronavirus emergency started.

A flyer with information about coronavirus v
A flyer with information about coronavirus

“Like everybody else, I was trying to stay at home. Even so, I felt scared. Online though I saw many people, all with different characters, experiences, abilities, and skills coming together. I could not stop asking myself, ‘What can I do.?'” 

Among many initiatives available for Martynas to join, one stood out to him. “Suddenly, I saw a post where an expat asked if there is any volunteering organization in English. Being an expat myself, I know how important it is to be part of a community,” Martynas says.

Fully committed to the idea of organizing an expats volunteer network, Martynas launched a call on Facebook, inviting foreigners to join him and a couple of his friends. 

“People started to connect and use their native language, contacts, and experience to help where it is most needed (…) We started distributing informative flyers in the city about the quarantine and other safety tips, but that is just the beginning. We have many other ideas.”   

Just like those from the stories above, the volunteers working with Martynas are not doing everything by themselves. According to Martynas, they are in contact with networks such as Gedimino Legionas.

When I asked Martynas at the end of our conversation if he still felt scared, he was quick to answer: “No. Now I don’t feel stress at all.”  

Contrary to the virus-outbreak cinema canon at the dawn of this crisis, we are not descending into chaos; quite the opposite, citizens are discovering that helping and comforting each other is the best way to cope with dire times.

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