Commentary: Morristown needs community and generosity to beat COVID-19

The 1918 influenza epidemic. CBS News.


By Donna Gaffney and Linda Stamato

New Jersey state officials, as of Sunday afternoon, reported at least 98 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including 31 new cases and two deaths.

Morristown will be a critical part of the picture as the outbreak escalates in the days ahead. What will the picture look like? What would we like to see?

Our community has a history of coming together. We have faced threats to our freedom of speech and assembly, and stood strong against racial hatred and intimidation, and reeled together from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

What is especially challenging about the coronavirus pandemic is how fear can be such a critical factor in how we behave. We have seen such fear before— the Spanish flu in 1918, the polio epidemic of the early 20th century, and the anthrax scare in 2001.

We can anticipate, and already have witnessed, a spectrum of responses, from denial–and refusal to act in responsible ways–to embracing full-throttle measures to protect the community.

We are seeing examples of the best of the latter in our healthcare workers, those in a direct line of contact with the disease; and in our leaders, who are responding rapidly to try to limit threats to public health: Governors and mayors; heads of libraries, school systems, colleges and universities; clergy members; and commissioners of sports franchises.

Then, there are those who defiantly, or in ignorance, insist on gathering in public spaces, resisting the town’s efforts to reduce hours at bars and restaurants where virus exposure could be greatest.

Some people fail to recognize that despite their youth and good health they can be virus carriers and, in a chain of contacts, infect others who are not so young or in top shape.  In public spaces with close contact inevitable, this is a recipe for spreading a deadly disease.

Some people take preparation to a whole new level, hoarding precious supplies, masks, hand sanitizer, paper towels, and so on. And there are those who seek to profit by selling these products at inflated prices.

As the public searches for clear and accurate information on how to protect themselves and their families, they can be confronted with faceless internet trolls who peddle false cures and post wildly false disinformation.

We will do the best we can do, as a nation, and as a town, in managing the threat and impact of this disease, if we look to function as a community living in its shadow. We have done this before and we can do it again.

What does functioning as a community mean?

First and most importantly, practice aggressive social distancing.

This coming week will be THE week to begin to practice as much aggressive social distancing as possible. It will help to minimize the number of cases of COVID-19, especially among those who are vulnerable. This is also called Flattening the Curve, where you can limit new infections to give the health care system time to build its resources to care for critically ill people.

The reason is this: In the next week or two there likely will be the highest number of contagious people who are carrying the virus but NOT showing symptoms. We won’t know who to avoid.

At the same time there will likely be the highest number of non-infected vulnerable people, those who are over 60 years old and/or have a health condition that puts them at greater risk. It is a perfect storm, those who are healthiest unknowingly infecting those who are least able to come through COVID-19 without complications.

Social distancing is critical.

I Got Your Six

The military has a phrase that we might re-purpose and use to remind people how we can come together for each other. “I got your six” comes from the WWI pilot system, in which directions correspond to hours on the clock (12 o’clock is forward, 6 o’clock is behind).

When someone tells you that they’ve “got your six,” it means they’re watching your back. In the age of coronavirus, we must have everyone’s back.

Be media literate. Be especially wary of wild sounding strategies to protect yourself from the Coronavirus. There is no truth to drinking water every 15 minutes to flush the virus into your stomach where gastric acid will kill it, nor can you check your lungs each morning by holding your breath for 10 seconds to determine if your lungs have fibroses from the virus!

You can go to Snopes to confirm if such ideas are true. They’re not.

Don’t overdose on media. It’s very tempting to keep up with the latest headlines. How many times can we listen to Sanjay Gupta? Be especially mindful of how children are absorbing TV, radio, and the internet. Watch and listen with them. Maybe just once a day.

Self-care is crucial. Eat well, sleep, exercise. Get out in the fresh air and sunlight as much as you can, especially as spring flowers and trees begin to bloom. (Unless your allergies begin to bother you.) Things that are green and growing remind us that we are all part of a bigger plan—we become grounded in the natural world.

Here is where community comes in . . . We must work together to stay apart.

Every person, family and member of the community should follow the recommendations of the CDC.

Consider your neighbors. What do they need? How can you help? It could be as simple as a phone call or bringing groceries to them.

Raise your voices to be sure that small businesses, restaurants and bars are heeding the mandates of local, state and federal governments. This is not a time to assume that people will do “the right thing.”  Fear wreaks havoc with our decision-making.

Speak out to neighbors and community members to be sure everyone has the information they need. Use social media to stay connected.

Support your local businesses in these economically devastating times, especially those who have made the decision to close in order to ensure public safety. Say thank you to them in a very public way. They will need us when the fog of COVID-19 lifts.

What we need is the spirit of Italians and Spaniards who are, essentially, under house arrest. Schools are closed, bars and restaurants, too, and movement is restricted for anything other than critical work, health or the procurement of essentials.  We haven’t gotten that far in America, but we will.

Erupting over the streets of Italy, from people stuck in their homes, one hears singing, musical instruments being played, and a variety of expressions of gratitude—reflecting the spirit, resilience and humor of a nation facing its worst national emergency since the Second World War.

In Spain, it’s much the same.  At 10 o’clock every evening, people appear on their balconies to shout expressions of gratitude to their healthcare workers.

We need to find the courage and compassion and perseverance to do the same, even if we don’t have balconies.

Here are some critical sources: 

One of the best, up-to-date, and well-sourced, is The New York Times. The Coronavirus Briefing is an informed guide to the global outbreak, with expert advice about prevention and treatment.

To dig deeper:

COVID-19 – Public Health – Research Guides at Rutgers University. Information will be updated as it becomes available.

Donna Gaffney is an author and psychotherapist who has worked with families, schools and communities in the aftermath of 9/11, the Pan Am 103 and Hurricane Katrina. She is the author of The Seasons of Grief, Helping Children Grow Through Loss. Gaffney is a consultant for the New York Life Foundation and works with families, schools and professionals affected by trauma, loss and violence.

Linda Stamato is the Co-Director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.  She is a Faculty Fellow there as well.  Active in the Morristown community, she serves on the trustee board of the Morristown and Morris Township Library Foundation and is a commissioner on the Morristown Parking Authority.


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  1. I started a Facebook group called NJ Coronavirus Support. It’s an open page so anyone can join. The goal is to use it as a “I need…” and “I can do…” resource for our older and more vulnerable to get what they need from people in their community

  2. Linda and Donna – thanks for posting this. Hit the nail on the head. The next week or two are critical. Think of the Greatest Generation and their children; now is the time to sacrifice to protect our most vulnerable.

  3. While almost everyone I know understands the reasons for social distancing and the science behind how viruses spread, I’ve come across a group of people who are against these measures and have tried to convince me the pandemic is political and over-hyped by the media. In their eyes, the virus either doesn’t really exist or the odds of catching it are too low for them to inconvenience themselves by avoiding public spaces. Thankfully they seem to be in the minority, but it still causes me great concern for those I know who are older or immunocompromised.