Rural Frontlines and COVID-19: Reporting from the Field

Turn on the radio or TV. Open a newspaper or website. COVID-19 is front and center. Photos from New York, Detroit, Seattle, New Orleans – and nations abroad – evidence a world of change in a changed world. Daily counts of cases and deaths mount, by country, by state, by county.

What’s harder to grasp is the health and economic effects of our shared crisis on rural regions and tribal nations across the United States. This, despite the fact that last weekend the number of reported COVID-19 cases increased at a faster rate in rural counties than in urban areas, extending a recent and likely growing trend.

The Daily Yonder and Indian Country Today are two outlets doing their best to report what is happening in rural communities and across tribal nations. But research suggests rural and tribal communities are likely among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Plus their slow pattern of recovery from recent crises – like the 2008 recession –  tells us that the economic dislocation and its companion effects will be disproportionately felt by rural and tribal communities. So…we need more rural focus on all fronts and from all fronts.

“I am very concerned about rural America.  Especially those who are poor, especially persons of color, especially those who are older…and all of rural, actually. I cannot overstate my concern for rural communities and the lack of health care sites….”

To make the current realities, needs and ideas from rural America more visible, the Community Strategies Group has asked its local partner and colleague organizations to send in reports from the rural and tribal frontlines. Even as we continue to collect these reports from the field – send us yours ! – we can already offer these emerging themes:

  • Broadband is remote. The perennial cry from rural America rings like a siren now: The broadband coverage needed to work, learn, do business, get health care, and order goods for delivery is simply unavailable in some rural places. And where it is available, it is often unreliable, extremely slow, expensive and/or has insufficient reach.
  • Health is suffering. The pandemic amplifies existing weaknesses in the rural healthcare system – closed rural hospitals, the scarcity of basic, acute, and specialty health care professional services, and the many disproportionately poor people (compared to urban rates of poverty) who lack health insurance, especially in states that have not pursued Medicaid expansion.
  • Families feel the pain. For the rural working poor and persistently poor, with school out, jobs lost, and tougher transportation issues, there are now more mouths to feed at every meal and fewer dollars to pay for food and for getting to a faraway store (if you have a reliable vehicle), much less housing, utilities and other necessities. With viable business models in short supply, the availability of childcare for rural workers has been a developing crisis for years. The pandemic has only amplified that, shuttering the doors of many childcare providers who can’t make ends meet. This leaves essential rural frontline workers without childcare options today, and creates a new quandary about how to establish viable rural child care models that will be essential to a recovery.

“We previously had a child care shortage, and many providers who are shutting down because of COVID19 may never reopen and our shortage will be even greater.”

  • Small business – truly the big business of rural America – is at risk. A large portion of rural small businesses – whether retail, manufacturing, farms, recreation and tourism, restaurants and breweries, nonprofits, child care providers, essential and non-essential – are at threat of closing. This is not because they are not good and productive businesses; they are – and are important to both urban and rural America. It is because they operate close to the margin and may not get stimulus help in time due the to structural inequities, complexities and challenges embedded in how federal and state assistance flows (or does not flow) to rural.

“We worry that the billions funneled through the stimulus bills will not reach many small, very small, low resource businesses without the capacity to navigate the applications. Small and low capacity businesses need intermediaries to amp up to help them access these new tools. But the bills did not really provide for that.”

  • Messages confound. Conflicting messages about the pandemic coming in via different media “channels” – be they television, radio, Facebook or elected, civic and religious leaders — are extremely problematic. Some rural communities and regions have trusted sources of information, but not all by a long shot. A clear, unified message is needed from bottom to top and back again.
  • Creativity abounds; Resources not so much. Many civic-sector organizations, whether community foundations, community action agencies, community development financial institutions, or a wide, wide range of other nonprofits, are taking swift action and working creatively with state and local governments to provide immediate interim relief. For example, we have many reports of rapid-response rural bridge loan pools. But most been oversubscribed in just a few days – in some cases, in hours. And some rules governing the use of public resources are making it hard for rural agencies to access the assistance, or to flex what they can access to use for what they need.

“The federal system is archaic in nature and is woefully inadequate to distribute assets quickly to remote communities across our state and the nation.”

  • The line of sight is already focused on opportunity. Rural practitioners hope against hope that this crisis will better illuminate the interdependence of urban and rural America, and the importance of strengthening – in the medium- and longer-term recovery – the resilience of urban-rural regions through wiser, joint investment in people and infrastructure, civic and business know-how, and collaboration for mutual benefit.

“Rural potential will only be met through a civic contract where the roles of the Federal, State, and local governments are clearly outlined, understood and agreed upon. This will have the greatest likelihood of success in a regional framework.”

One cross-cutting theme is not unique to rural places: Communities, families, businesses and organizations that were most vulnerable before this crisis are most at risk. They are also least equipped to jump through all the hurdles required to access federal assistance and make it through. We have scarcely received any responses from our partners in rural persistent poverty regions, which are disproportionally comprised of communities of color, including Indian Country. In these regions, family livelihoods depend largely on the now “essential” lowest-wage, hard-work jobs such as farm worker, meat packer, cashier, restaurant server, truck driver, home health or child care aide – jobs that today either entail inordinate individual risk or have suffered layoffs. We likely have not heard from our partners in these places because their agencies are the most tapped and most strapped in rural America. This simply provides more proof that equity must be front and center in all the relief efforts to come.

Rural Voices: Hear Here

All of these realities come through clearly in the voices of the rural practitioners and leaders we contacted. We have excerpted a few potent quotes that illustrate the themes above ­– and more.  Just click on any category to hear it in their telling words.

Next Up: Rural Takes Action on COVID-19

Share your own voice, story or action here. We are collecting anecdotes and ideas about rural communities, businesses, organizations and people who are stepping up, striding and striving together to quell the pandemic and address its effects and aftermath. We will begin reporting those in the coming days. Stay tuned!

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group
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