The pandemic comes to rural America

Some rural Americans assumed their relative isolation would insulate them from the COVID-19 pandemic. But reality has painfully asserted itself.

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A customer walks inside building 31 at Graham Park on Nov. 7 for the Rochester Farmers Market, which will be held indoors from November to April. (Noah Fish / Agweek)

I wanted to write a Christmas column celebrating the joys and successes of rural America and agriculturalists this past year. I had examples, including the brisk, smooth harvest, of things that went well in 2020.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has come to rural America. And when I see, hear and read about the struggles of so many good people, the desire to write an upbeat Christmas column evaporates like dew on a hot July morning. Like many of you, I have strong rural ties. Like most of you, I worry that the pandemic's rural onslaught will hurt family, friends and neighbors.

As I write this, North Dakota, where I live, is among the national leaders in average daily cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days; Minnesota and South Dakota rank above average. North Dakota already has had 87,877 cases and 1,158 deaths. and the numbers will be higher by the time you read this. People I've known for decades, even my entire life, have been stricken; one has died.

When the pandemic began, some rural residents figured it really wasn't relevant to them. They assumed COVID-19 was primarily an urban thing, and that they were insulated by the relative isolation of small towns and rural areas. Though elderly residents of nursing homes in some rural communities were hit almost right away, younger, healthier folks weren't at serious risk — or so some rural residents assumed. Fine people I like and respect fell into that false thinking. The reality, as we've now learned so painfully, is that our location merely slowed the pandemic's arrival.

I'm not claiming rural residents were careless or foolish. In my experience, most acted responsibly. I'm saying some underestimated the danger. The same was true of some urban residents, of course, but the "we're-insulated-so-we're safer" attitude definitely hurt rural areas.


Wrong thing, right thing

Part of the failure to acknowledge reality came from the top. Remember President Donald Trump's pre-election assurance that coronavirus was on the downswing? "We are rounding the turn,” he said. “We are rounding the corner.”

No, Mr. President, rural America is not. And part of the fault is yours. You've continually politicized and downplayed a public health crisis, and countless Americans are paying for your self-serving mistakes. History will judge you accordingly.

To be clear: I don't like big government. I don't like bureaucrats hectoring me. I don't like the hypocrisy of elected officials who impose lockdown orders in their cities or states and then blithely violate those orders themselves.

But I believe in science and commonsense. Practicing reasonable precautions advocated by professionals should have nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. Protecting yourself, your family and your community isn't "red" or "blue." It's doing the right thing.

Some unsolicited advice in dealing with the pandemic: Gather information from reliable sources — your family doctor would be a good place to start — and act accordingly. Yes, that information will evolve as more research and data become available; don't use that as an excuse to do nothing now.

But don't be obsessive, either. Make the best of the situation, especially at Christmas. Take sensible precautions, while enjoying the season.

And to Americans, both rural and urban, whose existence has been rearranged or even shattered by the pandemic: For some of you normal life will return eventually; for some of you it never will. Whichever group you're in this Christmas, fight the good fight, stay your course, keep the faith.

To read more of Jonathan Knutson's Plain Living columns, click here.

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