By Boswell Hutson (Champaign Showers)

It is no secret that many are worried about the effects of this novel pandemic on rural America. I’ve opined about it (too much, probably), as have NPR, Vox and the New York Times, all raising the same points: limited ICU capacity, old and unhealthy populations, and large distances to regional hospitals.

Coupled with this statistical danger in rural areas, there was also an increased movement to deny the virus on a political level that seemed to trickle down from the President to rural communities, which lean heavily right. For a non-negligible amount of time this Spring, no amount of factual reporting seemed to be able to sway rural America from what was coming. This coupling created a terrifying scenario that we are still preparing for and living out.

There are countless examples of this all over Illinois – places where actions were contrary to reality.

For example, in Piatt County, in the midst of a pandemic, the Emergency Management Agency Director wasn’t allowed to speak to the press until last week. When Governor Pritzker closed all bars and restaurants across the state, businesses in almost-exclusively rural areas thumbed their noses at public health and blamed the closures on politics. We can see it plainly on display in a quote from the New York Times article linked above, from a nurse-to-be in southern Illinois:

Grace Rhodes was getting worried last month as she watched the coronavirus tear through New York and Chicago. But her 8,000-person hometown in Southern Illinois still had no reported cases, and her boss at her pharmacy job assured her: “It’ll never get here.”

“Everybody never really thought it would get to us,” said Ms. Rhodes, 18, who is studying to become a nurse. “A lot of people are in denial.”

We also saw this perpetuated on rural areas’ local media platforms, with this particular Letter to the Editor from the Carbondale newspaper drawing my ire on Twitter and elsewhere.

On its face, the letter is plainly false. It’s a conspiracy theory and it perpetuates a very dangerous viewpoint that we now all know, and knew at the time of publishing. It is emblematic of an attitude that actively puts people in danger. 

But what my repeated criticism got wrong is context, and context is important. 

Context, here, in the sense that these papers and media sources are vital right now, providing lifesaving information to their populations better than anyone else knows how to do. Editors and reporters are going places we can’t, or don’t want to, go. They are reporting the sad news we don’t want to hear. And they are doing so under threat of furlough or unemployment due to the unfortunate funding structure of local media and unprecedented economic turmoil.

Context matters in an equal-and-opposite way, too. When this is all said and done, history will look back on this pandemic and ask how we got to this tragic point. It will ask how the United States of America, supposedly the best-prepared for a global pandemic, fell to its knees under the pressure of a disease. It will ask how the general public reacted to science and research in the face of crisis, and why.

The problem with the latter context is that, while it’s true that this single Letter to the Editor was wrong, it’s not helpful to criticize that decision right now.

There will be a time to look back and analyze how we got to this point, where nearly every county in Illinois has a confirmed case, under-privileged communities are being disproportionately affected and deaths are mounting, but that time is not now. Now is the time to value our local news sources and the information they provide. We don’t need to be tearing down their trust, especially when the work their journalists are doing is so important.

Jumping too quickly to those conclusions, or doing so at an inopportune time, arguably does more damage than the initial transgression. To use a colloquialism: the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. One Letter to the Editor is not going to change public opinion in a significant way, especially if it simply echoes the sentiments coming from the President. No matter how inaccurate, these ideas still exist in public discourse.

A single decision is just that – a single, isolated decision. Choosing to run the letter was a bad decision, and it came at the worst possible time, but it is still just one of a litany of factors that are affecting how the general public views the crisis, and it’s unfair to give this letter more than its fair share of blame.

There is no doubt that this pandemic will shape how we look when we come out the other side, both societally and as individuals, for better or for worse, with less respect or with more. The best that most can hope for is that we, and the people we love, come out alive. That primal fear is enough to make seemingly-good intentions turn into something different.

Be well, be safe, and try to stay sane. We’re all doing the best we can, some better than others.