Has the Pandemic Changed the Narrative on Rural Communities?

The world is looking at rurality through a different lens as high density urban areas suffer from the ongoing pandemic

Ann Eisenberg
Associate Professor of Law
University of South Carolina School of Law

Prior to the covid-19 crisis, urban/rural disparities—in political leanings, demographic makeup, access to infrastructure and services, and economic opportunity—received ample attention in discussions about the “urban/rural divide.”  Suddenly, in February and March 2020, the world seemed flipped on its head.  Space abruptly played a different role in our lives.  Manhattan with its attendant amenities—public transportation, employment opportunities, nice public areas, restaurants, shops, high-speed wifi—emerged at the frontlines of a nightmare scenario where population density itself was the enemy. 

All of a sudden, people needed distance from each other, which in itself was its own bad dream for those who ended up confined to the tiny apartments that were originally meant to be mere sleeping stations in the opportunity-playground of New York.  This rapid transition into the New Abnormal prompted one commentator to declare New York City to be dead, inciting an angry response from lifelong New Yorker, the essential urbanite, Jerry Seinfeld, who received backup from a professor at Columbia.

Since the pandemic, it seems as if our impressions of rural communities have changed in two fundamental ways.  First, rural life has taken on a more desirable gloss.  Population sparseness is an amenity.  Open space, fresh air, cheaper property, a decent view of a tree, the room to recreate without wearing a mask—these are luxuries, even more so than they used to be.  Commentary suggests people may be “fleeing” to rural regions.  Some of these pandemic migrants have been criticized for bringing Covid-19 to the small towns and remote counties where they have vacation homes.

Rural-as-positive flies in the face of the standard narrative: that rural America is dying, mega-cities are the future, and urbanization is both desirable and inevitable.  My own work has challenged this narrative before, arguing that distressed rural communities aren’t “dead,” but rather have been treated by our legal-political economy as a large-scale sacrifice zone

Now, rural communities seem less like part of an outdated bucolic past, and more like they hold potential for the future—future growth, future remote work and school, future anything in a world where place simply matters less and our lives are conducted more in the virtual ether and less in our physical surroundings.  Urbanites migrating to rural places for a better life also flips on its head the idea that rural residents must inevitably move to cities to find better jobs and opportunities as traditional industries continue to decline.

Second, and not unrelated, disparities in rural access to healthcare and broadband internet have been exposed as even more inhumane and inequitable than they seemed prior to the pandemic.  The need for healthcare appears all the more acute when 190,000 people have died of a preventable disease, when all of us have envisioned a scenario of suddenly being unable to breathe and needing an emergency room.  Broadband’s downstream uses—socialization, work, education, telemedicine, economic opportunity in general—have become more apparent to the many of us spending our days on Zoom meetings, those plugging their kids in for virtual school, immunocompromised people running their symptoms past doctors in faraway offices.  Rural communities who lack good internet don’t just lack the ability to Google things, they lack the ability to participate in an entire way of life now conducted online by necessity.

For scholars and activists invested in improving rural quality of life, this newfound attention may seem like a mixed blessing—as is often the case with attention given to rural communities.  On the one hand, it’s good that more people are aware of rural marginalization, rural hospital closures, and the fact that aggressive, humane efforts like the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 make it seem like our best days of infrastructure investment already happened 90 years ago.

On the other hand, the reason we suddenly care more about rurality, beyond the needs seeming more stark, is that more people are now able to see themselves as wanting to become “rural.”  If I’m a resident of a rural place, of course, especially as an upper-middle-class person, I should have access to a hospital and internet!  Yes, it’s a good thing for widespread suffering and newfound identification with each other to produce more empathy in a country where empathy itself seems to be our biggest deficit.  But it’s unfortunate that wealthy people’s suffering is the necessary first step down the path of caring about issues that mostly affect poor people.

In any case, perhaps the pandemic’s tragedies can also include some lessons and progress toward important policy initiatives.  State and federal policymakers should reinvest in rural hospitals, invest in broadband and recognize it as a public utility, and find other ways to reduce rural isolation, like enhancing access to affordable rural transportation.  Today, these ideas cannot be cast as mere altruism for the rural populace.  We might all need or want access to rural infrastructure, sooner than we realize.  

– Ann Eisenberg

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