In the rural South, the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming a silent disaster.
As rural residents commute to jobs in cities and transportation hubs, they’re being exposed to the virus and bringing it home to a population already at risk.
Chronic diseases that can lead to more severe COVID-19 symptoms are common across the rural South. The population is older and poorer than much of the country, and the health care system has been deteriorating for years as hospitals lose staff and close.
Despite the population’s vulnerability, Southern states have been a stronghold of resistance to federal and international recommendations around COVID-19 protective measures. Most of the states’ delays and refusals to enact “shelter-at-home” policies were tied to economic arguments.
Now, governors are using the same economic reasons for loosening those restrictions. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called for reopening several types of businesses including hair salons starting Friday and restaurants and even theaters starting Monday, despite concerns from public health officials. Mississippi is also considering lifting its shelter-at-home orders for economic reasons. When that happens, service workers, once partially protected from exposure, will find themselves at greater risk.
As University of Mississippi sociologists who work with rural communities on a range of resilience issues, especially health, we are concerned about the economic and health consequences of returning to business before the region is prepared to protect its residents.