Not Alone: The Emergence of Digital Altruism During COVID-19

As COVID-19 forces us to restructure nearly every aspect of our daily lives, many of us have found ourselves searching for meaningful ways to spend our time. As Harvard College first-year and HTR editor Nikhil Dharmaraj put it, “I was hit with the realization, at some point, that this is the most free time I’m going to get, basically, in my life.” While outlets like cooking, watching movies, and going for walks have been great stress relievers, he and I both felt a strong desire to invest our newfound free time in attending to others’ needs during this global crisis. Luckily, in this way, we are not alone.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless initiatives have sprung up that utilize digital tools to help those in need. Within the Harvard community, starting the week we learned we had to leave campus, many of us used digital spreadsheets and forms to coordinate support for our fellow students by providing temporary housing and financial assistance. Since then, people around the world have collaborated on making and distributing masks and other personal protective equipment to frontline workers, ensuring that these workers can access groceries and childcare, collecting and visualizing health data to keep the public informed about the outbreak, tutoring students who are no longer in school, making calls to members of vulnerable populations, and even performing music as a way to provide comfort to people who may be isolated and stressed.

 In some ways, the altruism emerging from the current crisis represents the most idealistic version of what the internet was designed to support. Although social distancing guidelines restrict much in-person volunteering, online communication allows for people to attend to each other’s needs virtually and coordinate the physical volunteering that can be done. Anyone who sees a need in their community can recruit volunteers by posting to databases of volunteer opportunities, like https://helpwithcovid.com/, or by reaching out to specific communities through social media and email. Dharmaraj recounted that “[his] inbox just started flooding with all these opportunities” shared through Harvard-affiliated email lists, and he ultimately signed up to do remote tutoring through the organization CovEduation along with a number of other volunteer projects. Similarly, as a prospective volunteer, I was able to find opportunities that fit well with my abilities through databases as well as my inbox and feeds, and I could express my interest in helping out with just a few clicks. 

CovEd is a community of undergraduates, postgraduates, students, and educators from colleges/universities across the U.S. who are interested in supporting K-12 students in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such a large number of opportunities, disseminated over so many different platforms, can feel overwhelming at first to a prospective volunteer, and the decentralization of information can pose obstacles to determining which efforts would be most worthwhile. For the most part, however, once a person indicates interest in particular volunteer opportunities, they can learn more about what those projects involve before they make a commitment. For me, after expressing interest in several opportunities, I was invited to Slack channels, email lists and Google Drive folders where I could find out what other team members had done thus far and how I could contribute to the effort. 

From my exploration of digital volunteering, the projects that I have perceived to be the most worthwhile have been projects with a specific goal and a clear set of tasks for volunteers to perform in order to help out. For instance, one particularly meaningful project I have been able to take part in is an initiative by the Harvard Medical School COVID-19 Student Response Team to provide support to healthcare workers at Harvard-affiliated hospitals. After expressing interest in the project through a Google form, I attended an informational Zoom call and signed up for a specific biweekly shift as a volunteer liaison. During my shift, I monitor a spreadsheet for requests from healthcare workers for assistance with childcare, grocery runs, and other services. When a request comes in, I reach out via email to local student volunteers who have signed up to help with the requested service and make connections between the healthcare workers and available volunteers. Through this project, I am able to utilize digital platforms to establish in-person connections between people and improve individual people’s lives. 

An especially meaningful aspect of digital altruism in this isolating time is the formation of social connections between volunteers and individual people in need. A Harvard-based project that exemplifies the value of social connection is the Community Voices Initiative, created by Harvard Medical School students Ashley Goreshnik, Julia Malits, and Raj Vatsa, which aims to combat social isolation by coordinating phone calls between student volunteers and vulnerable community members. Thus far, the outcomes of the effort have been incredibly promising–when I connected with the creators of the project, Malits, a second-year MD candidate at Harvard Medical School, said that the project “has renewed and solidified our appreciation of the singular role of human connection. Indeed, there is an irreplaceable joy in exchanging stories with a new friend, listening to the wisdom of a senior, or simply sharing laughs in the company of another. This underlying drive for connection is what inspired Community Voices to emerge and what we are certain will continue to propel it forward.” Personally, I am grateful to have experienced this joy as a volunteer–over the past few weeks, some of my most enjoyable interactions have come as a result of Community Voices phone calls. When I made my first call to my community partner, I did not know what to expect, but despite our different situations, we connected over our shared anxieties, sympathized with each other’s specific challenges, and expressed how glad we were to talk to each other. It warmed my heart to form a positive connection with someone else–to know, in this time of social isolation, that we are not alone.

The Community Voices Initiative is a program that aims to help minimize social isolation by connecting students with members across the Boston community through meaningful, virtual interactions.

Although these large-scale remote volunteering efforts could not have come about without the internet and were facilitated by dramatic changes in people’s schedules, there is something else about this moment that has made it particularly ripe for the flourishing of digital altruism. We are naturally empathetic creatures, and a common crisis can bring out this uplifting side of humanity: as we all experience our own COVID-19-related challenges, we are more able to imagine the difficulties others are experiencing, and as a result, we are more motivated to help others. Furthermore, as I have experienced during my Community Voices calls, helping out during a time of crisis is not just useful to the recipients of volunteer efforts–a number of studies have shown the beneficial impacts of volunteering on the well-being of the volunteer.

While the rise of widespread digital volunteering was brought on by COVID-19, I am hopeful that these changes will outlast the current crisis. This tragic situation has brought us together digitally and, in doing so, has revealed the broader potential of digital platforms to support collective altruistic efforts. Physical distancing has demonstrated how many of our daily activities can be translated online relatively easily, and even as in-person socializing is deeply missed, there are many aspects of our interpersonal engagements that we may discover are improved by retaining the option for remote participation. Remote volunteer tutoring, for instance, could expand even as schools open up again so that tutors can mentor a more diverse population of students who might not necessarily live nearby. Likewise, for people who previously thought they did not have enough time in the day to do community service, the rise of remote volunteering could inspire them to make a lasting change that will be compatible with their busy schedules even in a post-pandemic world.

Whatever challenges arise in the future, the digital altruism of COVID-19 creates an infrastructure on which other altruistic movements can build and innovate. Raj Vatsa, a second-year MD-PhD candidate at Harvard Medical School and co-creator of the Community Voices Initiative, noted that “it only stands to reason that if other technologies are adapted cleverly, we can uncover highly impactful ways of serving our communities and connecting with those in need.” As a generation moves forward transformed by the tragedy of the coronavirus and the spirit of altruism that has emerged, I am hopeful that the goodwill brought out during this collective crisis will persist long after the pandemic ultimately comes to an end. However our daily lives may change as we eventually navigate a new normal, I am glad that we now have a better understanding of how easy and rewarding it can be to invest time in making a positive difference in others’ lives without leaving home.

Authors

Hannah Cole
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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