Rural America needs reinforcements to fight COVID-19

J.D. Scholten is the Democratic candidate in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district. -promoted by Laura Belin

More than 9/11 or the financial crisis of 2008, the coronavirus or COVID-19 has affected every single household in America.

Millions of workers have been laid off. Many are working without paid leave or hazard pay. Hospitals are on the brink of being overwhelmed and understaffed. Parents are at home trying to teach their kids during school closures. Grocery store shelves are barren. And everyone is worried about the health of themselves, their kids, and loved ones; about how they’re going to pay the bills; about where to get a test, about how long this is going to last.

Amid this uncertainty, everyday people are stepping up. Groups are sewing masks for local hospitals, neighbors are picking up groceries for the elderly, communities are putting together meals for kids who get their breakfasts and lunches at school, and families are buying gifts cards for local businesses to use when this crisis is over.

These acts of everyday heroism are inspiring, but they are not enough. Government exists to take on challenges that are bigger than what individuals or communities can do themselves, and has a critical role to play in providing the reinforcements that rural America needs to beat this virus and keep the country afloat. 

Of course, the government’s first responsibility is public safety. That starts with ensuring rural health systems can meet the COVID-19 challenge. Right now in Iowa, there are 235 confirmed cases of COVID-19, three confirmed deaths this week, and only 545 intensive care unit (ICU) beds for the entire state, most located in urban areas.

Doctors and nurses on the frontlines of this pandemic are already facing shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like gowns, gloves, and N95 masks, and ventilators. We need more supplies now. To that end, President Donald Trump should immediately use his authority under the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to produce more supplies. At this point, donations are not enough. [Editor’s note: Trump signed the first such order on March 27, requiring General Motors to “accept, perform, and prioritize Federal contracts for ventilators.”]

We need to lift up the workers and families who are bearing the brunt of the economic fallout, many of which were already struggling. To start: Increasing unemployment benefits and cutting wait times for every American who loses their job due to this pandemic; waiving restrictive work and eligibility requirements for food assistance eligibility; halting evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs; and providing paid sick and family leave so that people can take care of themselves and their loved ones without worrying about lost income.

Unsurprisingly, giant billion-dollar industries have the gall to ask Congress for help right now after years of buy-backs, increases of CEO compensation, and job outsourcing. If Congress caves and again caters to the billionaire class and corporations, we will worsen income inequality and slow the recovery of main street businesses and families. (If you don’t believe me, ask some families in rural Iowa that still haven’t recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, 12 years later.)

This pandemic adds insult to injury for farmers across Iowa who have been struggling over the past few years due to the effects of President Trump’s reckless trade war, climate change, and consolidation in the agriculture industry. The USDA should defer Farm Service Agency loan payments or adjust loans until our nation’s agricultural sector is in better financial shape. And with oil prices already down, ethanol plants are losing 25 cents per gallon of biofuel, which could very likely result in more plants closing down in the near future. With a decreased demand for corn, prices are going to nosedive, hurting our family farmers even more. 

This crisis is hitting all of us. Market solutions won’t fix this. We can’t ride it out. We need an aggressive, targeted, and competent response led by the federal government. 

Through this crisis, we’ve seen who’s really the backbone of this economy. It’s our nurses, doctors, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and first responders. They should be at the heart of the next recovery package. It’s the responsibility of the federal government to protect its citizens; now is the time to step in and do it.

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