Rural America has suffered greatly throughout the COVID pandemic. Heartland communities have been hit hard because in many cases we have higher rates of those who are medically under served, uninsured and who have underlying conditions. We are, despite our strength of community, responsibility, and character, uniquely vulnerable to COVID in rural America.
That’s why the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent finding that rural counties lag behind urban counties in vaccination rates is so frustrating. Even In my own Shelby County, we lag behind all our bordering counties in vaccination rates. Vaccines are available and they are safe. We need to redouble our efforts to encourage our friends and neighbors to get the shot.
If we are uniquely vulnerable to COVID in rural America, we are also uniquely equipped to motivate our own community to get vaccinated. Rural Americans have a sense of shared community. We know each other by name, we shop at the same stores, we see each other out on the road and in the local coffee shop.
But we are also guarded. Particularly, in who we listen to.
Outside “officials” don’t fare well trying to convince rural Americans, particularly when it comes to changing someone’s mind. We need to hear it from someone in our own community. And while we normally don’t intrude in each other’s personal business, this is one time we need to — we have to.
That’s why I bought a billboard. In rural Ohio — in my home community of Sidney directly across from our local hospital, Wilson Health. The billboard is a reminder that in rural America we take care of our own and that means getting vaccinated.
I bought it because I know that many in rural America, including some of my friends and neighbors, are questioning the need to get the vaccine now that COVID cases are declining. But progress shouldn’t lead to complacency. Especially since, as of June 1, Shelby County is only reporting 28% completed vaccinations. On the farm, when a job needs done we act, we don’t shy away. It’s time to get this done.
If we don’t vaccinate, we may unnecessarily lose more of our neighbors. If we don’t vaccinate, the virus will have more opportunity to evolve and become more lethal and more infectious — making another pandemic more likely. No one wants to return to a world of lockdowns and online school.
In rural America, actions speak louder than words. If we say we care for each other, we need to demonstrate it with our actions. When a neighbor is sick, we rally as a community to help harvest their crops. That’s what we do. We make sure our neighbors are cared for. We’re invested in the health of our communities because know we’re all in this together.
I want this billboard to remind my rural neighbors that getting a vaccine is a favor to your neighbor and your community. And, I want it to honor the farmers my community lost to COVID.
Before vaccinations became available, we lost area farmers to COVID. I can see their faces when I read the CDC statistics on rural counties as we fall behind. Had a vaccine been available only months earlier, those farmers in my community and thousands of rural Americans might still be with us. Now that vaccines are available, we owe it to them to get the shot.
Others can do what I did. In fact, that’s what it’s going to take — individual action of common folks. Rural Americans need to hear from their own. Let’s turn our vulnerability to COVID around using the foundation of rural America: community, responsibility, and character.
Chris Gibbs, is a grain and cattle farmer in Shelby County, OH. He is the Board President of Rural Voices USA, a 501 (c) 4 non-profit working to bridge the rural-urban divide and ensure rural voices are being heard on key policy issues.