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OP-ED: To get through this, we all must 'be the helpers,' says Pa.'s second lady

Gisele Barreto Fetterman
Second lady of Pennsylvania
In this file photo, Gisele Fetterman, at right, greets others during a 2018 event in York City.

One of my childhood favorites, Mr. Rogers, used to tell a story about how when he was a child and he saw something disturbing on the news, his mother would comfort him by telling him to “look for the helpers.” They were always there, she assured him, in the background, looking out for their neighbors.

Those words have always brought me comfort, but in these difficult and uncertain times, it is not enough to simply look for the helpers, we all must become the helpers ourselves. The world will look very different after this pandemic passes, and we will have the opportunity to build a brighter future. That work has to begin today with simple acts of kindness and care.

I worry about the most vulnerable among us as we navigate this unprecedented situation, and I fear that they will be left behind. I worry about those who have lost their jobs and are wondering how they will feed their families. I worry about small business owners, restaurant workers and all others who suddenly find their worlds upside down. I worry about those experiencing homelessness and how they will manage under circumstances even more difficult than those they already face.

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I especially worry about our front-line health care workers, our first responders, those keeping our grocery stores stocked and running, and all the other workers out there risking their lives to keep all of us safe. I stay up most nights worrying about Pennsylvanians making it through this. If you are up nights worrying, too, there is a number you can call for help.  

It is for all of these brave souls who we must rise to the occasion of being the helpers in our own ways. The most important thing we can do for them is staying home and maintaining proper social distance until our health care system can fully prepare to care for the patients who will fall ill in the coming weeks or months.

Social distancing isn’t easy. Trust me, I get it. I am a hugger, and it would be impossible to exaggerate how difficult it is for me to stay six feet apart. Even though it goes against my very nature, I know how important it is, and how staying away now means the day when I can once again hug my friends and neighbors will come more quickly.

I also worry about the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country, because I know exactly how they must be feeling. My mother fled violence in Brazil and brought my brother and me here with nothing when we were only children. Unlike the soothing advice that Mr. Rogers’ mother offered him, my mother warned us every day to “be invisible,” because the future we were fighting to build for ourselves in America could be snatched away at any moment if we weren’t careful.

This virus doesn’t care who you are, and it doesn’t care where you came from. It affects all of us the same and that is why we all need to come together to make it to the other side. It scares me to see people reacting to their fears by lashing out at immigrants. It scares me when I see the president insist on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” It scares me when I see immigrant families crammed into detention centers that were already unsafe, being exposed to additional danger during this pandemic, and it scares me when I see ICE conducting raids using personal protective equipment that our health care workers so desperately need to keep them safe.

These things scare me because I know all too well that they will all make the pandemic worse for all of us. If we scare our immigrant neighbors into taking my mother’s advice and trying to “be invisible,” they won’t seek out the medical care that they need, and the virus will spread even further throughout our communities. We are all in this together, and that means every single one of us.

There are plenty of things you can do to help make our community stronger while social distancing. Blood banks are in need of donations. You can donate to organizations working to ensure that everyone has enough to eat. You can make sure that your voice is heard by registering to vote, and signing up to vote by mail, and you can make sure that you are counted by completing the 2020 Census.

If we all come together but stay physically apart, we can save lives, and we can ensure that we will get back to normal as quickly as possible. Until that day comes, stay safe, be extra kind, look out for one another, stay home and please wash your hands.  

— Gisele Barreto Fetterman, second lady of Pennsylvania, is an access and equity advocate.