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When I first got married, my husband and I worked on ranches around the west: Texas, Montana and Wyoming. Everywhere, we were fairly isolated and even though the nearest neighbors weren’t close by, they were all we had, and we were all they had. So the noun, neighbor, took on the form of a verb and we all took neighboring pretty seriously.

When I had little babies and would return from my monthly trip to town, I’d drive by my closest neighbor’s place. It was the last place on 15 miles of two-track until ours, four miles further up the road. About 30 minutes after I got home, I’d get a phone call. Betty would have some excuse to call and visit a bit, but I knew she was making sure I’d gotten through all the pastures and the four gates and had gotten the kids safely home. And it was a reassurance knowing that when I drove by that last place, someone knew I was on the road and headed home and was thinking about me.

Neighboring showed up in lots of ways — fixing fence, doctoring a sick cow, keeping the road in good shape, fighting grass fires or sharing extra garden produce. Neighboring, each family taking care to keep each other safe. Really, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Once we moved to town, I went to work as a public health nurse. During my 10 years with public health we had numerous table-top exercises on how to deal with the next pandemic. And it was pretty simple: 1. Give clear advice based on science and explain new data as it comes in. 2.  Epidemiology 101: identify who is contagious and isolate them so that they cannot infect anyone else. 3. Just like a forest fire, act early; the bigger the fire is the harder it is put out.

Right now, we are in the midst of a fire storm called the coronavirus.

There are things we know will help, and you don’t have to be a scientist to figure them out. They just make sense. 1. A national plan so that everyone, everywhere is moving in the same direction and not working at crossed purposes; 2. Clear, phased restrictions based on data, that are responsive to changing conditions on the ground; 3. Free, accessible testing; 4. Mandates to follow simple rules proven to help lessen the spread, such as mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing.

It is not the health of the economy or COVID mitigation. It is the economy and COVID mitigation. It is not about anyone’s freedom of choice. It is about feeling safe among friends and neighbors. It is about science. This is a novel virus. That means that no one on earth started out with any immunity to this thing. That means everyone on earth is in the same boat, fighting the same battle for a good, long, healthy prosperous life.

So, let’s get back to the very important business of neighboring, each family taking care to keep each other safe. We really wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

Wendy Ostlind, MS, RN, is the E.A. Whitney Endowed health science chair at Sheridan College.

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