As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, many rural communities are in a uniquely difficult position.
According to Kaiser Health News, nearly 80 percent of rural America is categorized as a “medical desert,” meaning the nearest hospital is more than 60 minutes away. These hospitals are also much harder pressed to come up with ventilators and personal protective equipment for practitioners — and not to mention COVID-19 tests, which are in short supply everywhere.
Health care in rural America was in crisis well before the outbreak, with higher uninsurance rates in the countryside limiting access to care and financially undermining health facilities. Despite legislation giving financial relief to some hospitals, over 350 rural hospitals remain at high risk of closing.
Rural communities are at risk of severe outbreaks for other reasons as well.
For one, many rural communities lack reliable broadband connections. With so much COVID-19 information being transmitted via the internet, some rural residents may miss out on key updates.
Rural residents are also typically older, putting them at higher risk of dying from COVID-19. And they disproportionately lack access to healthy food and other necessities, which have become only more scarce in the pandemic.
Given the various risk factors associated with rural communities, a coronavirus outbreak in rural communities would be catastrophic. However, some government officials have not shown urgency.
For one, despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a potential “second wave” of COVID-19 infections, some governments are easing social distancing mandates. For example, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is allowing non-essential businesses to reopen.
Meanwhile, the federal response to COVID-19 has utterly failed. In addition to failing to expand severely limited U.S. testing supplies, the White House has not kept its promises to provide more protective equipment or control misinformation.
Indeed, it’s been issuing a steady stream of its own misinformation, prompting warnings from health officials that no, you should not inject bleach to treat coronavirus. A direct consequence of Trump’s carelessness has been a steady increase of emergency room visits and poison control calls for bleach ingestion.
Rural communities cannot afford to be neglected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments at all levels must coordinate their efforts to educate, protect, and care for rural residents during this uncertain time.
In addition to continuing and strengthening local social distancing orders, local governments must continue making resources — like food, shelter, and medical supplies — accessible and free. Accurate information on COVID-19 must also be made accessible, especially for rural residents without an internet connection.
In addition to government help for rural hospitals, temporary and affordable clinics should be created in high-risk areas with limited hospitals. Nationally, testing and protective equipment such as masks and gloves should be readily available regardless of one’s location.
The response to COVD-19 will be a true test in capability, resilience, and crisis-planning for all those in positions of power. The neglect of rural communities during this pandemic is yet another way this nation’s COVID-19 response continues to fail.