An Urban's Rural View

Coronavirus Musings

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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A sign in the Paris airport in early March cautioned travelers to watch for the signs of the coronavirus named COVID-19, especially if they are returning from China or other places where the virus is actively circulating. (DTN photo by Elaine Shein)

An old saw has it that what you don't know can't hurt you. The coronavirus is proving the old saw wrong.

What we don't know about the dreaded disease can indeed hurt us. For starters, we don't know who has it. COVID-19, the official name of the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, can be carried by people who show no symptoms but can nonetheless communicate it to others. An asymptomatic 20-year-old woman in China infected five of her relatives. They developed symptoms. (…)

How often this kind of transmission happens is unknown (…).Also unknown is the death rate from COVID-19; I've seen estimates both well under and well over the death rate from everyday influenza. That's understandable. The infection rate is also unknown. Experts are just guessing at the number of cases, the denominator of the death-rate fraction.

Lack of knowledge feeds public panic. Were accurate information available, people could make sensible calculations of how much they're at risk and sensible decisions about how much risk they're willing to take. Instead, with so many questions about the disease unanswered, many assume the worst.

Fearing the worst, they take precautions that may be warranted but may also turn out to have been unnecessary. Authorities declare emergencies and close schools and impose quarantines. People cancel travel and stay home from work even if they're not sick. They stock up on hand sanitizer and toilet paper and bleach.

Panic reverberates through economies. Supply chains are broken, goods aren't produced and shipped. Events are undone, cruises are torpedoed. Stock markets tank. Cattle futures plummet. (…)Recession looms.

Add all this up and it's clear that when it comes to COVID-19, what we don't know not only can hurt us. It can actually kill us -- and in more ways than one.

The one good thing is we at least know what we don't know about the disease. That's usually the start to asking the right questions.

One question I've been asking is whether the city or the countryside has more to fear from COVID-19. I was surprised to see the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, warning that rural Americans are particularly vulnerable. But the center makes an interesting point.

It notes that rural Americans are, on average, poorer than urbanites and have less health insurance and access to medical care. They also have less broadband internet, which makes it harder for them to work from home.

"As policymakers make plans to fight the new coronavirus, rural America must not be left behind," the center pleads. It urges the government to provide rural Americans "access to diagnosis, medical treatment, and eventually vaccines without cost." (…)

Agree with that policy recommendation or not, the center is right about the country's disadvantages. There are indeed important things many rural Americans lack that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

What the center doesn't address, however, is the possibility that rural Americans might be less likely to be exposed to the virus in the first place.

In general, communicable diseases are much more easily communicated in places where people live close together. Here in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C., I have innumerable opportunities to come into contact with the virus.

There are 83 apartments in my nine-story condo building. I encounter my neighbors daily in elevators and other public spaces. When I wait for the Metro at the George Washington University station, dozens or even hundreds of others share the platform. The two grocery stores I walk to are often packed.

I don't know about residents of small rural towns, but I can't imagine most farmers and ranchers are as likely to be exposed to COVID-19 as I am.

The media have been critical of governments around the world, the Chinese government in particular but ours also, for being slow to respond to the virus. Is the media overplaying the pandemic and causing panic?

I don't think so. It seems clear that there would have been fewer cases and fewer deaths if governments, including ours, had taken the virus more seriously earlier. In any event, it's the media's job to ask tough questions. When covering a disease about which so much is unknown, the more tough questions the better.

That said, it's up to each of us to strike the right balance between practical precaution and overreaction. That balance will differ from person to person depending on circumstances like age, health and locale.

In the end, we all just have to hope that what we don't know won't kill us.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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