Ziya Tong: Neighbourliness is wonderful. But when they knock, should we let them in?

Lately, you may have seen an old Robin William’s quote resurface on the internet. The meme goes, Canada: “You are the kindest country in the world. You are like a really nice apartment above a meth lab.” The joke, I’ve come to realize is a lot funnier for our neighbours down south than it is for us. And that’s because we know if that meth lab blows up, we’re going right down with it.

So, what happens when your neighbour is a nightmare? I’ve had plenty of time to consider this during COVID-19, on two levels: the personal and the geopolitical. On a small scale, we’ve all probably had to deal with neighbours we don’t love. Loud music, nosy nellies. A friend of mine even calls her neighbours “the grass police,” because they report her to the city when her grass grows too long — by mere centimetres. I’m not kidding. They send their son over to measure her lawn with a ruler.

As for me, up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know my neighbours at all. But that all changed late one night in April when I got a phone call from a stranger. The woman on the line explained that she lived in my building, and that after knocking on everyone’s doors and speaking with each of us, she realized that we all shared serious concerns about the co-op board. Now, normally when one hears the words “apartment” and “co-op board” the eyes glaze over. So let me be quick and spare you the details.

Basically, we faced a microcosm of the age-old problem: on the one hand, a small group of people (the board) with too much power and too little accountability, and on the other hand, a much larger group of people (the rest of us) who felt isolated and powerless.

That is, until COVID-19 came along. With the new normal of pandemic video-conferencing my neighbours and I — while physically separated — connected virtually. Together, with our small alliances we came to realize that we held the majority vote. So, earlier this month we did what would have previously been unthinkable: we organized a mini-coup and overthrew the board.

Reflecting on this, the irony of coronavirus is that it’s revealed how socially isolated many of us were before social isolation was even enforced. And in a strange way, the virus has acted as a door-opener, especially for neighbours.

All around the world, old-fashioned “neighbourliness” has been popping up. And it’s a beautiful thing. A friend of mine who’s currently going through a divorce is frequently visited by his neighbour who checks in on him with gifts of homemade bread. Another friend participates in a weekly block dance party that starts at 3 p.m. Many restaurants, have managed to eke out an existence during the pandemic, thanks in large part to the locals in their neighbourhood who continue to support them. And of course, we’ve seen the joyous balcony concerts, and the ubiquitous banging of pots and pans to celebrate the health-care workers.

Perhaps then, this is a wake up call. For a long while, we’ve been so focused on our online social networks that we’ve neglected the social networks in the very places where we live. Coronavirus may be a timely opportunity to flip the script. In fact, the Japanese even have a word for this: Ria-ju リア充: meaning, a person who feels more fulfilled in the real world than the virtual one.

That said, our real and virtual worlds need not be separate, they could intersect. I was thinking about this last July when I posted this tweet:

“I wish there was a social network for neighbourhoods. Imagine taking a delicious cooking class with a local grandma? Kids could get mini-jobs by signing up to babysit. You could even borrow a cup of sugar or a neighbour’s car. The idea would be to thread our local communities back together again. To build trust and support. Advertising would be local. And it could work on a token or barter system. Imagine ‘paying’ to borrow, say, a shovel, with cookies or a fresh loaf of bread. I especially love the idea of integrating the elderly & kids. Giving them things to do w community purpose.”

On Twitter, I was quickly reminded that there are already websites like NextDoor, but there are problems on those sites, as some have devolved into toxic discussion forums, with neighbours getting into bitter fights over things like who’s responsible for the dog poop. My response was: What if there were no discussion forums at all? What if, instead, there was just a social network for favours. A way to keep things simple and positive.

One year later, and remarkably, my wish came true! As that’s exactly what mutual aid groups have sprung up to do: they offer neighbours nothing more than a helping hand, for free. Right now, my friend Kevin is active in his local COVID-19 Mutual Aid group in the UK. Last time we were on the phone, he put me on hold while he took a call from an older gentleman. The way it works is senior citizens and vulnerable community members dial in, and he’ll send in someone from their neighbourhood to run errands like help with medicines, or shop for groceries. In his many years of activist work, he said this is one of the most rewarding things he’s done. And it’s not charity, he reminds me, just neighbourly.

My hope is that this heartwarming work continues long after the pandemic, because we certainly need a sustained dose of good will and trust to bring our local communities together again, especially in big cities. Because in many ways, staying separate in our private worlds has deep political implications as well. I’m reminded of what Hannah Arendt observed in her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” which seems particularly relevant now:

“Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other … Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together …; isolated men are powerless by definition.”

For our neighbours down south — the Divided States of America — we can only hope that such small alliances at the local level can begin to build back trust and heal some divisions, while larger, strategic alliances can be formed at the national level against Trump’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

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As for us Canucks? Well, our prime minister has some serious decisions to make, because right now, there are more than 2.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., circulating within a powder keg of economic upheaval and social unrest. But as a country of course, Canada doesn’t have the option of just “picking up and moving away.” We’re stuck with the U.S. as neighbours whether we like it or not. That being said, what we must do now and in the coming years, is build stronger trade alliances with other nations, so that our economic fate is not solely dependent on our neighbours to the south.

The world over, Canadians are known for being polite and for saying sorry. But one thing we are not known for is standing up for ourselves. With COVID-19 cases surging however, the States may soon pose a direct threat to the health and safety of our communities. It’s important then that all of our neighbours — both next door and in the U.S. — maintain a social distance. Ultimately, what this pandemic has revealed about living next to each other, is that there are some instances in which we must stand together, and some instances in which we must stand apart. So until the public health advice changes, sorry U.S. neighbours, but we can’t let you in. It’s no joke. No matter how hard you knock.

Ziya Tong is an author & science broadcaster. Her book “The Reality Bubble” was shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize.

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