People in rural areas, small towns in the middle of nowhere often get a false sense of security from outside horrors like the Coronavirus. I spend a lot of time in old graveyards, the ones in the middle of nowhere and forgotten by most. I live in a rural area … the nearest city is an hour away, Evansville, Indiana. There are a couple of towns about the size of my own (5,200 pop.) a little closer. But for the most part, nearby towns are smaller.
Warnings from epidemics past, written in stone
A few years back, while wandering country graveyards in Posey County, Indiana, just across the river, I was struck by regular occurrences of a row or cluster of small tombstones. Looking closer I saw they were children, with a few elderly people and other adults mingled in. Often they came from a single family. It suddenly dawned on me that these were the victims of the various epidemics that swept through the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Most of the graveyards around there have multiple groups of these tombstones, set a few years apart. It strikes me that this is a perfect illustration of the waves of infection we’re likely to experience. You can see it for yourself with the satellite view from Google maps, by looking at the shadows cast by the tombstones from overhead. The smaller ones are easily identified.
I’m betting country graveyards around the world follow a similar pattern.
Epidemics always hit the most vulnerable of our population the hardest. During that era it was often the children. Better medical practices and developments have softened that blow. The current plague sweeping the land doesn’t appear to be affecting the children as much as it does the elderly. Though in truth, none of us are safe, just some are more at risk than others.
One stop shopping … groceries, medicine, auto parts, virus
“It can’t happen … here.” Frank Zappa
Here in the sticks, we tend to think of ourselves as immune from the problems of the outside world, particularly those afflicting cities. But as these graveyards taught me, that’s a false sense of relief.
Here’s a sobering thought. In Evansville, Indiana, the nearest city, there are at least 165 grocery stores and pharmacies, serving a population of about 118,000 people.
In Carmi, Illinois, where I live there is one small market, one larger grocery store, two pharmacies and a Walmart.
In any given week, the majority of the population of the town, and the surrounding towns for that matter, walks through the doors of Walmart at least once.
Walmart has become the bazaar, the town square, the Wuhan seafood market where everyone goes because you can get everything there. Including the Coronavirus once it hits a town. So the odds of a higher percentage of the population becoming infected goes through the roof.
It’s the same in countless small towns throughout the United States.
Walmart has implemented sanitary procedures to help prevent the spread, but it’s laughable to say it’s an effective solution. There are no markers showing people where to stand in line to maintain safe distance. The store closes early to allow better cleaning, but the virus can remain in place for hours, while literally thousands of people come into the store.
And people here have that false sense of security, a hardness against reality born in ignorance, faith and probably at its root, fear of that which they can’t control. Yes, this a rural community in the Bible belt and we’re full of what the rest of the world disparages as rednecks.
What are a redneck’s last words? “Hey buddy, watch this!”
Well I lived in New York for about a decade, have wandered many places and there are rednecks everywhere. Just different outfits, hair styles and accents.
I hear it a lot … “God will take care of me.” Well my sister died of cancer. She was a church secretary, wife of a minister and one of the best, sweetest people I ever knew. It’s not God’s business to care for us, when we can care for ourselves and each other.
The sorry truth about emergency health care in a small town
Adding to the danger is the fact that most of our population is older. 21.7% of my town’s population is from the ages of 45 to 64, and 26% are 65 years of age or older. We have a high rate of COPD, which is particularly dangerous with this virus. Obesity is also a problem, leading to a higher instance of diabetes, which is also an at risk group. Then there are coal mines and respiratory illness brought on from that.
In short, likely close to 50% of our town’s population is in the high risk category, and if infected could need advanced care. Add to that the smaller surrounding communities, where the demographics are the same.
Now think of this. Carmi has no hospital. There are three hospitals in a half hour’s drive. All combined, that’s under a hundred beds, serving a population north of 50,000 people. If Google is correct, I find no ICU beds in any of those hospitals, but some are devoted to acute care. If it’s very serious, a case would be transferred to larger hospital in the cities.
From what I understand, Evansville is expected to be overrun in short order. So if you do get sick here, there really is no place to go.
Are you safer in rural areas?
And yet the shelter in place laws are being seen by many as optional. They look for loopholes to avoid the laws, even if the only reason is they don’t like being told what to do.
This menace is something our generation doesn’t have a lot of experience with … making day to day decisions which are now a matter of life and death. Need a new video game from Walmart to pass the time while you’re locked inside? That choice could mean your death.
Nearly all of us in our community walk through those same doors, so anyone with the virus undetected is likely to walk through them too. Close to half of the people you see there are in the demographics that make dying from the disease much more likely. If you get sick, the chances of finding adequate health care is almost non existent.
Still feel safer out here in the boonies? Dream on Alice, but this ain’t Wonderland.
No place to run
I’m looking at photos of those graveyards I visited and realize that even in that era, our shopping habits were more spread out, less centralized. The cholera epidemic which killed many of them started right here, in these graves. It started when a man died in Memphis, Tennessee, who was from Posey County, and was sent home by steamboat for burial. His corpse infected those on the boat, and in Mt. Vernon, IN, where it landed. It then carried the disease right up the river, deeper into the heartland. It fanned out through the countryside, and before it was done, about two thirds of Mt. Vernon fled the area in terror.
This time there’s nowhere to run.
So what do you do?
Decide if that trip to the store is worth it. Do you really need it? You’re not sick you say? Great but that doesn’t mean you’re not infected. It just means you don’t qualify for a test if you are. Even if you’re young and healthy, you could be killing who knows how many people who aren’t.
Here’s a sobering thought. The governor of New York just asked for another 55,000 hospital beds. That’s about equal to the number of infected cases in Italy today, and doesn’t count the ones already in existence in New York. Italy has three times the population of the state of New York. What exactly is he seeing that he believes that rather than leveling off at the current level of horror in Italy, it’s going to get much, much worse?
That means in addition to a lot of sickness and death, more economic distress is coming your way. Save your pennies wherever you can.
Is the Walmart Way truly helpful to our way of life?
We get a better selection, great prices and one stop shopping. We get a lot of minimum wage jobs, carefully crafted to avoid being considered full time, so to keep your prices low their employees quite often don’t get benefits. In return, we lose small businesses and inherit dying main streets.
When this passes, we need to look at the changes the last few decades have wrought. I was here when Walmart came into the community. It had an immediate effect. All the smaller shops closed rapidly. Most of the larger businesses, the pharmacies, the grocery stores and others fell soon afterwards. Walmart’s goal was to be the one stop marketplace for everyone in the community. When they did that, rather than help prevent the horrifying results of epidemics past, they made the problem worse.
They bought this problem, and now they need to do more.
Yes, they are hiring more staff for cleaning and most of all for stocking. So life can go on as much as possible, shopping as usual. But this is not life as usual, and it’s not going to be for some time.
What Walmart needs to do is use more of those people for sanitation, to make their stores safer than they are now. For cleaning checkout stations after each customer. For giving the staff who deal with those customers time to wash their hands after each transaction. Lines on the floor, strictly enforced to keep people at a safe distance. And to encourage more and more people to order online and pick up their orders outside.
Fuck that. The stores should be closed to inside traffic, and all pickups made outside, just like liquor stores are doing here. Online ordering and pickup was implemented here before this started.
Would that be a burden on the company and their customers? Absolutely. Then again, dead customers don’t shop. It can be done … grocers around the country are implementing these same procedures, in cities where choice dictates that businesses have to follow suit to compete. Here they have no competition, and lightly dance over the details that can mean life or death.
Now isn’t the time to be making a profit, particularly when for decades they’ve been disrupting the fabric of rural society and putting us at risk. Now is the time to minimize that risk.
Yes, it’s personal
My lady works at a Walmart pharmacy. If someone is sick, they’re likely to be standing right in front of her, handing her cash, or prescriptions. The next person is right behind them. Staffing is short because Walmart minimizes the number of hours each store and each department can fill. She could work far more hours than she’s down for, because they want to keep her at part time. All the new hires will be part time, and it will make it possible to keep from having to make their current workforce full time.
The pharmacy provides no face masks, no gloves. For much of the day there is no time to clean counters. The only chance to wash your hands is during bathroom breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. There’s barely time to use hand sanitizers. These are the hands that touch the bottle of medication your receive.
There are bound to be undetected cases coming through her line. If it infects her, it infects me. I’m fifty nine years old and abused the hell out of my respiratory system most of my life.
I have a dog in this fight.
Next week, most of my work consists of making all my files available to clients in case something happens to me. I couldn’t in good faith add to my friend’s problems, and yes, my clients are my friends, if anything happens to me. They’ll have a hard enough time keeping going as it is.
And I’ll be making a will, which I’ve put off for too long. This is morbid shit, yes, but once you’ve got the basics out of the way you can stop worrying. Worrying won’t solve this pandemic either.
How to kill time without being killed in the process
Once my work is done, I’m going to live. There’s plenty to do. You have to prepare for worst case scenarios. When food distribution in North Korea collapsed around the turn of the last century, it’s estimated that over a million people starved. Cuba, which was also devastated at the time had a similar situation. The Cuban government recommended their population begin gardening, growing their own food. They avoided North Korea’s fate by providing for themselves.
If the food supply holds out then thank God. But if not, my food bill will be lower, my food will be healthier, and my lung capacity will be improved with a shovel. And I avoid some trips to Walmart.
That’s always how we survived out here in the sticks, providing for ourselves. We couldn’t rely on others because they had their hands full too. In the city if you don’t agree with your neighbor, there are a million other people to hang out with instead. Here we have to get along, accept each other for who they are, or be alone. That’s why when things get tough, communities like ours pull together.
It’s time we do that and this time it’s easy. We just have to stay home.
Churches need to start providing pickup and delivery services to their parishioners. Young people who are less vulnerable can place online orders, pick up the order and deliver. The same for civic groups. That’s how we got through back home during the wars – the churches, groups and local governments organizing and taking care of our people.
It looks more civilized here today than when it was wilderness. But the dangers are still there, just hidden beneath a veneer which is likely to prove illusionary.
So think. Learn from the past. It’s time to look backwards and consider what we may have thrown out of the past few decades of progress that might need to be retrieved. So that when we rebuild, we do it a way which reflects who we are and those that came before us, who went through the same problems. And not make the same mistakes again.
And in the meantime, stay home, use your time well, and take care of each other, and yourself. I have enough ghosts to write about already.
Todd, thanks for the update and perspective. I was wondering how life in rural Indiana was going amidst this social upheaval. I hope you and your Lady stay well.
Very well done, and no political agenda, love your neighbors as your self. Be smart be safe, I enjoyed the read.
Good read. You are welcome to come to St. Louis if you need healthcare! I work at WUSTL School of Medicine in Endocrinology. We are on 1 hour call backs. We normally see patients in the clinic setting but now being redeployed to work at COVID testing site, Occ Health or the ER. After long consideration I think I might take my chances at the site since at least there I’ll get some PPE and a hazmat suit.
Keep doing what you’re doing. I grew up in a southern Illinois funeral home built in the 1800s that we know is full of ghosts. Your site has been a pleasant place to go and explore the world without leaving my desk. Stay strong and keep writing!