The COVID-19 Lockdown In Rural Virginia

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The lockdowns in pandemic hotspots worldwide tend to be in major urban areas with high population densities and, understandably, receive the most attention from the media. New York, London, Mumbai, Lagos, San Paolo, and Paris, for instance, are/were places a person in a high-risk group would probably not want to be if they had a choice.

So, what if you live in a small college town in a rural county in the mountainous area of Virginia, the county with a population of 100,000 and the town 30,000 (along with 30,000 students during the academic year), where 91 people have so far tested positive for the virus with 1 fatality?

Surely, you, in my case a 72-year-old with asthma, but otherwise fairly fit and healthy, would feel safe?

As always the answer is– it depends, because such matters have underlying imponderables (the ghastly Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”).

In Virginia, a business is considered by law to be a person, and is therefore protected by privacy laws. Hence, for instance, a nursing home does not have to disclose if it has been a virus hot spot. Rumour fills the informational void, and the one fatality in the county is believed to have occurred on the outskirts of Blacksburg.

If the tally of Covid infections jumps by 4 cases a day in a small rural area, speculation does arise.

Moreover, testing in rural areas, even though I in live in a town with a well-known university, has been sketchy, despite the fact that Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, is the only US governor who is a medical doctor, and has taken flak from the inhabitant in the White House for his cautious and thoughtful approach throughout the pandemic.

Before the lockdown was imposed, an academic friend of ours living in our county returned from a conference abroad, and developed symptoms. No test was available until the symptoms passed, though subsequent testing revealed the presence of Covid antibodies. We know two other people whose symptoms passed before they could be tested.

Despite Trump’s boasts about US testing levels, the experience of our friends is reported to be common in many rural areas in the US.

Governor Ralph Northam is a centrist Democrat aligned with Virginia’s two centre-right senators— Tim Kaine and Mark Warner— and is well-known for his support of corporate interests when it comes to environmental issues such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

However, Northam has received praise in many quarters where the Covid crisis is concerned. And not only that– he also declined Trump’s request to send the Virginia National Guard to “restore order” in Washington DC, and ordered the removal of the statue of Robert E Lee from Richmond, Virginia’s capital and the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

A mixed bag is Northam, therefore, like Kaine and Warner.

Virginia governors can only serve one term, and are “dead ducks” as a matter of constitutional necessity. In some cases, with no need to think about their prospects of being reelected, this or that governor can grab opportunities to cash in on their office (a case in point being Virginia’s last Republican governor, the Pat Robertson protégé and grifter Bob McDonnell), in others it serves as a buttress for principles not evident when they took office.

And of course, in some cases it is both, since venality and scruple certainly coexist in the same individual depending on circumstances. Not every public figure is Eleanor Roosevelt or Nelson Mandela.

The current Virginia governor has done a decent job dealing with the pandemic, but rural Virginia does not have a consistent record of support for Democratic politicians. Our college town is solidly Democratic, the surrounding rural areas are in Trumplandia.

Virginia has been a purple state since the Clinton presidency– Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by a 5% margin in 2016, and Biden is expected to take the state by a comfortable margin in November.

Less certain than this is how rural Appalachia will cope with a virus second wave, especially when students return to campus for the fall semester from all parts of the country, and as the flu season starts to overlap with the Covid pandemic.

I self-insolate as much as possible.

There was a necessary visit to my periodontist a couple of weeks ago (he and his staff had full-on PPE). Our groceries are either delivered by the national-chain supermarket or picked-up curbside at our organic food store. We go to our Farmers’ Market one day a week, where barriers have been set up to ensure distancing between customers.

For the rest we try to find alternatives to the Bezos Monster, but alas have still to rely on Amazon for several items.

Friends my age, confronted with such “unknown unknowns”, say they expect to be in self-quarantine for the foreseeable future, as indeed do I. We heave a sigh of relief that we do not live in Florida or Georgia, with their Trump boot-licking governors.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.