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The idea that social cohesion protects our health has taken on renewed importance during COVID-19. Recognizing that many older and vulnerable New Yorkers are further isolated by the shelter-in-place and social distancing rules, the NYC Department of Health has rapidly activated its Be a Buddy program to protect New Yorkers in need.

From Climate Change to Social Isolation

The Heat Wave by Eric Klinenberg illuminated the health benefits of social cohesion – our social connectedness and sense of responsibility for our community. The book describes the Chicago heat wave of 1995, which claimed 739 lives in five days, mainly of elderly, low income residents. Klinenberg showed how neighborhoods with similar demographics fared differently depending on the degree of social cohesion.

Inspired by Klinenberg’s work, the Health Department created the Be a Buddy (BAB) program to improve social cohesion and reduce illness and death in three low-income communities with poor health outcomes: Brownsville, East Harlem, and Hunts Point. Community organizations in these neighborhoods work with volunteers who develop relationships with their vulnerable older neighbors. In emergencies, volunteers check on their “buddies,” and help them get what they need.  

Adapting to COVID-19

BAB has quickly adapted its ready-made system of interpersonal and community connections to support the health of New Yorkers isolated at home. Volunteers are now checking on their buddies via calls, texts, and virtual visits. In addition to social connection, they link residents with vital services, such as grocery, meal and pharmaceutical delivery, as well as mental health counseling. The program currently serves over 1,000 New Yorkers.

The community-based volunteers are so dedicated, going above and beyond to support their buddies in the BAB program. Check in calls are lasting longer and longer; people are thankful for the social engagement, especially now”

Hannah Siegel, Project Manager and Program Evaluator

Looking Ahead – A New Future

During this crisis, BAB is in a unique position to provide a critical service. However, the program needs more support to sustain itself and reach more people. We’re proud to share that we’ve received a donation from the New York City Foundation for Eldercare to support this essential work. And thankfully, FPHNYC  has received significant support for our Epidemics Fund, from those eager to support our public health system.

The participants are incredibly grateful to receive wellness checks from familiar people or organizations in their communities, and call their local volunteers just to tell them so.

As the nonprofit partner to the Health Department, FPHNYC is directing donations to its Epidemics Fund to the COVID-19 response.