Guest Columnist

A neighbor's warning: Informing Iowa Amish about the COVID-19 wasn't easy

An Amish horse-drawn carriage rides along Highway 1 outside of Kalona, in Johnson County, Iowa on Tuesday, March 24, 202
An Amish horse-drawn carriage rides along Highway 1 outside of Kalona, in Johnson County, Iowa on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Neighbors work to inform the Amish community of the coronavirus outbreak. Amish horses and buggies are ubiquitous around Kalona, an eastern Iowa town of about 2,500, as they ride to town to shop or bank or attend auctions. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)

In early March, I looked out my window, watching the birds at my feeder, and in the distance, I saw three Amish neighbor boys driving a pony and cart down the road toward their one-room school house. Normally, I would have been thrilled at such a cute scene, but that day I was worried. The Amish schools are still open, I fretted. A couple of days later on an early Sunday morning, buggy after buggy rolled up the road, gathering for church services. Oh, no, I thought. They are still having church.

I live in the middle of the largest Amish settlement west of the Mississippi River, close to the Johnson-Washington County line. The coronavirus had hit our area hard, the first victims of the disease, a group of people who had returned from an Egyptian cruise. The governor had already closed our state schools and stopped church services. I started calculating. Twenty to thirty children squeezed into Amish one-room schools, their desks close together, all the pupils often from one large extended family of siblings and cousins. Church services held in homes and drawing crowds of 100 or more. Weddings and funerals drawing 300-500 people with relatives from other communities all over the United States.

Yikes, I said to myself. The Amish don’t know what’s happening. How could they? Without T.V., radio, internet, or newspapers how could they know the threat that the “English,” or non-Amish, were experiencing? I began doing errands around the neighborhood, talking to my neighbors at the store, the greenhouse, and bakery. I told them that there was a deadly virus in the area and we all should be taking precautions.

They gave me a blank stare as if I had lost my sanity, or made little jokes as if I were an alarmist.

“Some places have already banned weddings and funerals,” I told them.

That gave some of my neighbors pause.

Then I remembered how they loved to shop in the big box stores filled with people.

“It’s best to not go into Iowa City right now,” I said.

“Well, we’re going tomorrow.”

“Who is taking you?” I asked. Amish have special drivers.

“Our driver. He’s a really nice guy. He just got back from a cruise.”

“Get a new driver.” I said, and there was more laughter in answer to my warning.

A few days later we had community viral spread and, because I am at high risk, my doctor suggested I isolate. But the buggies kept rolling down the road. The presidential task force came out with its 15-day order. I printed off the CDC’s recommendations, made copies, and like Paul Revere, drove up and down the road, stuffing the notices in mailboxes. Only essential businesses were allowed open. Gatherings were limited to 10 people or less. But Amish families often have more than 10 people living on a farmstead, including elderly grandparents.

I emailed a nearby friend who was also concerned about the Amish. She called the Johnson and Washington County health departments. They contacted the Amish bishops who finally closed their schools and stopped their church services.

Now the road is quiet, the pony and cart stored in the barn, the parade of buggies ceased. The men are struggling to prepare the ground to get the crops in the field. But overall, the days are quiet, the loudest sound from the Canada geese flying overhead, some of the few creatures in the world who can still gather in numbers and travel across borders.

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These days, my only companions are the house finches at the feeder who, like my neighbors, also seem innocent and oblivious to viral threats. Yesterday I saw a male and female light down side-by-side, the female opening wide her beak, the male depositing a seed in her mouth. Some day, when this pandemic is over, we will all be able to visit with our neighbors again. We will all celebrate, and mourn again as communities. And like the house finches, we will regain a sense of intimacy and trust.

Mary Swander is the executive director of AgArts and lives near Kalona. She is an award-winning author of poetry, non-fiction and drama.

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