TOPEKA — Mark Pringle has seen the self-sufficient mindset of many Kansas farmers and their families challenged by COVID-19 as the virus disproportionately impacts rural communities.
Pringle is a fourth-generation farmer and the Democratic candidate for the Kansas House in the 13th District. He and his wife, Mary Jane Shanklin, a registered nurse, have watched as communities like theirs in Woodson County cancel fairs and close hospitals, distancing themselves from one another.
“There is this idea, from outside and within some parts our community, that farmers are tough and resilient and can do it all on their own,” Pringle said. “Truthfully, farming was already a very marginal, at-risk business. Now, without many of those face-to-face interactions, we feel pretty much on our own to deal with our problems and that can be frightening.”
The pandemic has exposed and uncovered fissures in communities nationwide, as marginalized groups feel the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. In Kansas, that includes many small and midsized farmers, who activists say already struggled with access to health care and unstable trade before COVID-19.
Bankruptcies among farmers were at eight-year highs entering March, and then the pandemic hit, scrambling the food-supply chain. Restaurants closed and prices for cattle and hogs dropped as meatpacking plants, including many in Southwest Kansas, became hot spots for the virus.
“It’s morally inconsistent and economically insane not to address these issues,” said the Rev. William Barber II, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. “If we don’t address these issues that have been exposed, we could find ourselves in another Great Depression economically and an even greater depression morally.”
The Poor People’s Campaign is a nationwide revival of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s 1968 movement to unite and uplift poor and impacted communities across the nation. Led by Barber and Liz Theoharris, of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, the campaign is focused on confronting systemic racism, poverty and ecological devastation, among other issues.
Amid COVID-19, the movement has pushed for a moral reopening plan that does not cast these marginalized communities aside. Earlier this year, Barber led a protest against various states’ reopening plans that left disadvantaged communities vulnerable.
“Whether you are a Black person in an urban area or a white farmer in rural Kansas, this issue of being overlooked existed long before the pandemic,” said Letiah Fraser, a convener for the Poor People’s Campaign of Kansas. “It’s just much more evident during a health crisis that we have communities being left without care and medical attention.”
Access to health care is a primary concern for Fraser. Since 2010, seven rural Kansas hospitals have closed their doors.
The nearest hospital to Pringle and Shanklin is 30 minutes away, driving at about 70 mph, and the clinic in town is only open four days per week. Shanklin has also noticed a concerning decrease in the number of people accessing the health facilities that have remained open.
“I can say from the people I have spoken to that many are scared to go in and get that health help amid the pandemic,” Shanklin said. “It was already difficult to get the care one needs in these rural areas.”
She also noted a lack of accessible testing when the virus was first identified in the county.
Claire Chadwick, another convener for the Poor People’s Campaign of Kansas, said expanding Medicaid is something the organization is working to address now.
“Our ‘health care is a human right’ campaign has been going on for a little over a year now,” Fraser said. “We need to make sure to bridge the gap for those left uncovered and unprotected during a medical crisis like the coronavirus.”
According to the Kansas Health Institute, a total of 132,000 Kansans would newly enroll in KanCare if Medicaid were expanded, including 77,000 previously uninsured. Expanding Medicaid would also provide an additional boost to at-risk rural hospitals who often receive pennies on the dollar when uninsured clients pay out of pocket.
Fraser and Chadwick emphasized the interlocking nature of these issues for farmers. As these smaller farms continue to battle with larger producers and revenues decrease, many family members have been forced to pick up second jobs for insurance purposes or just for extra income, Chadwick said.
“Many of these jobs are what are known, at least in pandemic times, as essential jobs,” Chadwick said. “As we know, many of these jobs also expose people to a greater risk for contracting COVID-19, which leads us to issues of access to care when they need it.”
As farmers in Kansas see their already lingering issues worsened by COVID-19 — poor margins and lack of health care among them — groups like the Poor People’s Campaign say help is needed now to nip these growing issues in the bud.
Pringle said a good first step, beyond expanding Medicaid, would be additional aid for small farmers from the federal government.
“The federal government keeps saying these larger relief bills will end up benefiting the small farmer, but I don’t see those funds going to anyone but the big producers,” Pringle said. “If we aren’t careful, we won’t be able to come back without a lot more help than we need now.”