COVID-19 / May 25, 2020

Covid-19 in Rural America: Should we be worried?

Covid-19 has made shockwaves through cities across the world, though there has not been as much attention given to rural communities. Some predict that a second wave will be hitting rural communities after cases drop in metropolitan areas. The truth is, much is still unknown and the future is difficult to predict.

As rural counties see steady increases in cases of COVID-19, some may worry of an oncoming surge, or some may not worry at all. While these communities maintain the advantage of significantly less density and overall population size, there are other things to keep in mind as restrictions begin to loosen up. 

Assistant Professor of Anthropology-Sociology Ashon Bradford primarily studies wealth and racial disparities in rural communities; particularly agricultural communities in the southeast. He offered several valuable insights into what we might see within our rural communities as time passes.

One thing that should be kept in mind is the overall population of rural communities. Bradford explained that rural America has more elders than our urban communities as well as higher percentages of people with chronic illnesses. In addition to that, places such as Galesburg which experienced the loss of an industry are generally known to have higher risks of respiratory illnesses. 

While this information may already be common knowledge, there is also a lack of healthcare infrastructure. Bradford explained that many hospitals have been closing down around rural America, which can prove to be detrimental during the current crisis and cause people to suffer in silence. This has already been an ongoing issue when it comes to the opiate crisis that has predominantly affected rural communities.

“I do worry about the unseen aspects, oftentimes we can’t see the mental health aspect…  A lot of rural communities were already suffering from mental health crises and also the opiate crisis.” Bradford said. 

These are some of the generalities among rural regions, but what does it mean for Galesburg specifically? There are two main factors that add to its risk: The proximity to Monmouth as well as the correctional center just outside of town. Monmouth is home to a pork-processing plant with around 1,700 employees. Several food-processing plants across the U.S. have seen spikes in COVID-19 cases among their employees, and this one is no different.

“A lot of people who live in Galesburg, some of them work in Monmouth, so I don’t think Galesburg is isolated (compared to) any other rural communities,” Bradford said. 

Recently, the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences published a press release regarding how farmers and food-processing plants have been affected by the pandemic. Overall, it has proven to be a strain on producers as they try to adjust to the changes. Some have had to get rid of their products, such as butter, due to overproduction, or even go as far as to euthanize animals. This would be considered the “worst-case scenario”.

With regards to the correctional facility, Bradford claims that those are already areas that are highly susceptible to respiratory illnesses simply because of poor ventilation and close proximity with one another. Many of the cases reported in Knox County have been from the correctional facility and it could easily exponentially grow, but in hectic times like this, accurate numbers can be uncertain and difficult to obtain. 

Regardless of the risks and possibilities, it remains crucial to maintain precautions even if the population is significantly lower than the metropolitan hotspots. 

“I think the numbers won’t be as high (in rural America) as in urban America just because of demographics, but I think they may not get the recognition because, of course, places like New York City and Chicago are standing out because they have more people, but the ratio of people who may be dying or sick could be just as high as in those places.”

One thing is for certain: It will always be beneficial to maintain even the smallest precautions. Whatever community you live in, it is vital to maintain social distancing measures and wearing whatever protective gear is available. 

You can find COVID-19 updates in Illinois here, and a link to the CDC’s national map here.

Alicia Olejniczak, Associate Mosaic Editor

Tags:  coronavirus COVID-19 rural rural america

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