[Open letter from Red Cross Los Angeles Region CEO Jarrett Barrios to the nearly 9,000 Red Cross volunteers and employees across the Region as we move into “red” status. The American Red Cross has a color-coded matrix for the severity of disaster response. With the latest ‘Safer at Home’ announcement, we have officially moved into “red” or the highest tier.]
Los Angeles Red Crossers,
Today dawns a new chapter in our lives with the novel coronavirus: Today is our first day navigating life “in the red.”
The specific order by California’s governor mandates that “all individuals living in California stay at home or their place of residence.” A similar order from our county board of supervisors and the Los Angeles County Director of Public Health gives a bit more content to what will become our new normal. Through April 19, their “Safer at Home” directive requires us to remain in and around our homes – except for trips we make to “Essential Businesses” like the grocery or hardware store, or to pick up restaurant food or take a walk near to our homes (observing, as always, proper social distancing). How easy for these words to live on the page, but how hard it is going to be to live them. Because we are not a people accustomed to limiting themselves to these sorts of strictures and rules. Because we are now forced to train each other to live a new regimen. And because we are living at a time where some of our lives – specifically, those among us most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus – require that we all make these changes in lifestyle and movement.
When we are through all of this, when we are in a position to look back upon all this novel tumult – whether that’s next week or next month — we will remember how confusing it all felt the day things “went red.” Surely by now, you have read stories of the 1918 flu epidemic. Perhaps, like me, you have reached further back in history to epidemics and plagues and pathogens of yore, searching these chapters for some sort of analogy to our lives in the time of the coronavirus. We search through history because the days we are living through can’t recall precedent for such concern or consternation; our mortality is measured in short decades, not centuries, not milennia. Lacking direct knowledge, we look hither and yon for a precedent that might provide comfort in a world that seems to have turned upside down.
And while all of these things are swirling about the universe, whipping up our fears, we Red Crossers feel another emotion, too. This feeling tugs against our limbic cortexes—the so-called lizard brain. It calls on us not to step away from the world, but to engage in it – because there are those who suffer through this time with far worse consequences than we have or will. We know the risks to the public, and still we want to help. We see today’s bitter red halo, but rather than turn away, we open our arms to comfort others in its thrall.
This deep-felt emotion to care for others in their hour of need requires us to make very adult decisions. No matter how many disaster responses you have participated in, the COVID-19 response is different. No matter how hearty a constitution you have, this virus forces us to balance the altruistic spirit that drives us with health concerns for self and family in a way that’s different.
Our mission in Los Angeles couldn’t be clearer — 520,000 children in our county’s largest school district are on free- and reduced lunch. In normal times, they’d be in school and would receive two, even three, meals a day. They are on free lunch programs because their parents have honorable, but low-paying jobs of the sort our economy is currently shedding – service sector employees, gig economy workers, and so forth. It is a melancholy trifecta: poverty, unemployment, hunger. These children are the ones who currently call out to our deep-seated compassions for they will go without a meal many, many times during this pandemic. And that upsets us, which is why the Red Cross LA Region has “leaned in” to serve.
But some of us, accustomed like the rest to serving others at this hour of need, must strike a different balance this time. The CDC, medical experts, and the county health officer have repeatedly cautioned those in high-risk groups to stay indoors. That recommendation applies as readily to us as it does to others, even if we are permitted to engage in “Essential Activities.” At the Red Cross, we do not prohibit you from volunteering for an essential function like our school meal-distribution program, but we do beseech you to consider your own health profile. We encourage those in high-risk categories or that live in close proximity to those with high risk, to shift your work to virtual or other remote options to support our mission. In addition, we encourage you to review the most up-to-date information on COVID-19 at the CDC website. (Please also note that the CDC encourages those who are healthy to give blood.) At this challenging time, we will find a way for all Red Crossers to support this community we love so much and that needs us so much right now—but it will be with you at a distance so you can be “safer at home.”
For the rest of us, this job will be challenging for all the reasons I have described, and for one more. “Going red” is not a moment; it is, as I have already said, our new normal. And this new normal requires new things, perhaps none more pressing than that we rapidly and thoroughly train ourselves to follow all COVID-19 safety protocols—to maintain social distancing, to wash hands and to disinfect surfaces, to wear hats and masks as appropriate, and to teach others these safety protocols so that we all are kept safe. If at any point you change your mind and feel you need to step back from serving directly those in need, please do so. Whatever you decide, you will have a way to support our mission and for that I thank you.
As we settle into the new normal, I wanted to say one last thing. Above all, Red Crossers are resilient and we help others to become resilient. We know that this is not the end-time, but just another time that requires patience and resolve and humor. We will return to a day where the sunrise calls children out to their school buses and calls us to our cars for our daily commute in LA traffic. That day is around the corner, I can promise you that. I will be there, standing alongside all of you, present and ready to help our community recover because that’s what we do: We are the Red Cross.
I am, appreciatively,
Jarrett Tomás Barrios
Chief Executive Officer
American Red Cross Los Angeles Region