A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I’d warned them.
In early March we had the first three cases of corona virus in Iowa, pinpointed to Johnson county where I live in the middle of the largest Amish settlement west of the Mississippi River. Soon, we knew that the cases had come to us from people who had gone on a cruise ship vacation sponsored by a local bank. Everyone assumed that the cases were in Iowa City, our largest city with a population of 75,000, but friends who were linked into the public health system warned me that the positive cases were closer to me in the southern rural areas of the county.
I began taking precautions, staying at home, cancelling a camping trip with friends, washing my hands frequently, especially when I had to make trips to the grocery store. Then one Sunday afternoon when I was reading in my EZ chair, I heard the roar of a helicopter overhead, flying low. Usually, this only means one thing: The University AirCare Transport. I turned on the radio and after about 30 minutes, the announcer said, “Today the University Hospital has admitted its first corona virus patient to the ICU.”
Immediately, I worried about my Amish neighbors who had no electricity, internet, radio, TV or newspapers. Throughout the years, these folks had been neighborly and supportive, and I valued them for their friendship, and depended upon them for some foodstuffs. In turn, I gave the Amish rides to medical appointments and made myself available during emergencies. Despite their naiveté in situations like a pandemic, I respected their basic intelligence and know-how.
On Monday morning, I made rounds, from the hardware store to the country store to the greenhouse to inform the Amish about the deadly virus. The Amish just stared back at me in disbelief. Without more modern media sources, the Amish get their news word-of-mouth from “English” neighbors like me–not always the most reliable sources. And some had already been told by other English neighbors, that the whole thing was a hoax. My neighbors thought I was being an alarmist.
“Are you talking about the corona virus?” one of my Amish neighbor’s asked with a chuckle.
The next week, the schools, churches, and many of the businesses were closed. Iowans were told to stay home and flatten the curve. Then corona virus spread throughout Johnson county, and onward to most of the rest of the state. Local friends began falling ill with Covid-19. Others died. Most of my contact with my Amish neighbors ceased, but for quick occasional trips to their farms to buy meat and eggs.
With the spring rains and the warming soil, the asparagus spears began to push up out of the earth. The viral cases and death counts rose. I made a dash to the greenhouse for garden seedlings.
The Yutzys had big jugs of hand sanitizer stationed at the greenhouse door. “I’m sorry, Mary,” Bertha Yutzy told me. “We didn’t believe you before because we just didn’t know.
Good, I thought, now they’re taking this seriously. Home again with geraniums planted in containers on my front steps, tomatoes and peppers in my garden, I sat on my screen porch and read The Budget, the Amish newspaper. In this weekly, “scribes” from Amish and Mennonite settlements all over the world write reports of the comings and goings in their communities. When called upon, the Amish throughout the world had obediently closed their schools and halted their church services. I crossed my fingers and prayed that this vulnerable group of people wouldn’t get the virus. They lived in multi-generational households, taking care of their own elderly on their farmsteads. They had large families with typically eight to ten children. And they had a mythology that they were immune to “English” diseases.
By the third week of April, my Amish neighbors had been updated by other English neighbors.
“We heard it’s all over,” Bertha Yutzy smiled when I stopped to pick up eggs and poultry.
“Well, it’s looks like it’s peaked in New York City. But I wouldn’t let your guard down here. “I said.
“No, we heard It was way overblown.” Bertha said.
In early May, our Republican governor, taking her cue from Trump, lifted most of our restrictions. The press pushed back asking, “Isn’t this way too early?” People were able to gather once again in large groups, and could resume services in churches. The Catholic bishop immediately put out a statement that none of his churches would open. It was not safe. Protestant denominations followed suit.
The Amish circled their buggies in empty pastures, families staying put inside their carriages. Their bishop preached from the middle of the circle, I imagine projecting his voice through the chimney of a kerosene lamp, the Amish version of a megaphone.
Our governor and state epidemiologist flew to the White House and met with Trump and Pence.
“We consider Iowa a model of how a state should be run during the corona virus,” Pence said during a photo opt.
Governor Reynolds beamed with pride, but upon returning home, she discovered that she had been exposed to the virus at the White House. Both the governor and the state epidemiologist went into quarantine.
At the end of May, word spread around the neighborhood that Bertha was ill with pneumonia. She was running a high fever and had a bad cough. Soon Abram called me from a phone shack in the middle of a corn field.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” he said. “I got a sore throat, too, then I lost all sense of taste and smell.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Those are corona virus symptoms.”
Abram’s daughter Sarah was the first in the household to get Covod-19, then it spread to her parents.
“Well, where in the world would Sarah get a thing like that?”
That week’s entry in The Budget reported that the “flu” was rampant in the area. An Amish man died in Maine and the scribe there asked our local Amish not to come to the funeral. They were too full of Covid-19. We don’t want you to bring the virus to Maine.
“Yes,” Abram said. “Everyone here is sick.”
The Yutzys recovered but rumors travelled around the neighborhood of a super spreader funeral, an event with at least 500 Amish people present. It was estimated that from that one event around 100 people became infected with the virus.
Tempers flared among the Blue English, blaming the Amish for their ignorance. At the same time, the Red English dug in their heels and refused to wear masks. They paid no attention to social distancing, and like the Amish, they often kept on working and going to church while ill.
The Amish, and many of these same rural people, have no health insurance. The Amish pay all their taxes, but do not take unemployment, disability, Medicare or Medicaid. They sent back their $1200 stimulus checks. They had little choice but to keep their businesses open. Shutting down for a two-week quarantine period would create a huge financial burden.
I contacted the county public health department and the state epidemiologist to report the outbreak. The county said they were in contact with Amish bishops and were aware of the situation. The state never replied. No testing, contact tracing, quarantining or social isolation took place here within a semi-communal settlement of 5,000 Amish and Mennonites. Travel was not curtailed. Amish frequently hire drivers to take them to visit relatives throughout the U.S. They also travel by bus and train.
Soon, Amish communities all over the U.S. wrote of their viral outbreaks in The Budget. Many deaths were reported with drive-by viewings before the funeral. Eli had the virus and seemed to be doing better, a scribe wrote in The Budget. I was out in the kitchen getting supper, and when I went into the living room, he was dead, sitting up in the chair.
So, the virus spread from one ill family member to the next. As we headed into the summer, the Amish drivers, too, began dying. Wherever they were located, the Amish obeyed their local mandates and adopted their regional mind-sets toward the virus. Usually the Blue State Amish wrote that they found masks uncomfortable but acknowledged their significance. In contrast, the Red State Amish often lapsed into denial. The corona virus wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Those in international settlements—like Canada, Ireland, Iraq, Nicaragua, and Liberia—adopted the attitudes of their countries, seeming to accept and face Covid-19 without dissent. These settlements voiced their gratitude when a small restriction was lifted. At the end of August, a Christian Ministries scribe in Liberia praised God that, lockdown lifted, they could go to the beach for a few hours and make a quick run to the grocery store. The scribe in Ireland described how an engaged couple—one partner in Ireland and the other in New York—had to deal with international travel and entry restrictions. They met and were married in Bermuda then returned to Ireland and quarantined in a cottage by the sea before rejoining the community.
The U.S. Amish were not so sanguine. Like most of the rural English surrounding them, the Amish chafed at restrictions, fought off masks, and even tried to keep their illnesses quiet. We haven’t been tested, so we haven’t been reported, an Ohio scribe wrote in July. Better to keep it quiet. A southern Iowa Amish woman wrote that she and her husband got on the train without masks. They were told to put them on but reported that they didn’t have masks with them. The conductor told them that they would then be put off at the next stop.
“Fine, that’s where we were going anyway,” the couple told the conductor, hopping off the train.
The U.S. was probably headed for a train wreck anyway with Covid-19. I was saddened beyond sadness by all the deaths in the Amish community. I applaud their stance of calm fearlessness in the face of threat. In the past, they’ve done well by rejecting many of the ideas and practices of the English world. But sometimes the Amish isolation from the world allows them to be taken advantage by the world. The supreme irony: The Amish, a culture without electricity or radio or television, became victims of broadcasts of misinformation. And their lives had been threatened by the propaganda spewed across media platforms in the name of political polarization.
“We didn’t know,” Bertha had said, but the country as a whole did know. And in the name of the economy, we have sacrificed marginalized groups like the Amish.
“I cannot prioritize Iowan’s lives over the economy,” our governor had told us.
And now the Amish have become an experiment in herd immunity, the direction where we all seem to be headed in the U.S. It will take a while, but in the end, I hope that we can grieve our dead, then recover from this mass trauma. I hope that we can find the same kind of gratitude the Amish displayed even for a small thing. A quick trip to the grocery store or a run to the neighbors for a dozen eggs may never be the same.
Mary Swander is the former Poet Laureate of Iowa. Her latest book is a collection of essays on her interactions with her Amish neighbors, called Adeste Fideles in Chinese, from Route 3 Press.
Copyright 2020 Mary Swander. First published in by the Black Earth Institute.