VIEW: Vaccines and Small Towns Like Mine

Andrea Duarte-Alonso is a regular VIEW columnist. She lives in Worthington, and works at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and with the Southwest Initiative Foundation. She is working on “Stories from Unheard Voices,” an online platform of immigrants in Southwest Minnesota.

In a few days, employees at the local meatpacking plant will have access to the vaccine, thanks to Governor Walz’s rollout plan and those working with the state to organize prioritization. All those considered essential workers, including food processing and plants, will be eligible this month for the vaccine. Though the vaccination is not required, the local meat plant incentivizes $100 for those willing to take it. Some have hopped on board to receive the vaccine, and some are still skeptical of a government-issued vaccine.

It is unbelievable that almost a year ago the community of Worthington, where I live, became a coronavirus hotspot. I remember counting down the days until it hit my family. The virus arrived at our home soon enough, as it did for my friends and their families.

Most people of color around me, especially those who work in large group settings, became terrified of going to work, going shopping, and going out at all unless it was for an emergency. It was hard for me to see my community in fear.

Many in my community took preventive measures. Others resisted wearing masks, pretending like the virus was a hoax. Others did not believe they would be affected because they did not live in multi-generational households and did not work in group spaces.

I heard the blame and shame given to immigrant families who do live in households with many family members together. I noticed racism and privilege when I saw individuals going about their business while spouting hatred about other community members. Internally, I was livid.

The vaccine has not yet rolled out to the general public, but I drive by restaurants and notice the filled seats indoors. I scroll through Snapchat and see people at crowded parties, unmasked and unbothered. I heard people respond when asked if they are going to get the vaccine: “Not a chance.” It pumps frustration right through me.

An NPR article, ‘Toxic Individualism’: Pandemic Politics Driving Health Care Workers From Small Towns,’ shows similar patterns happening in small towns, specifically with health professionals. The politics that crept into some people’s response to the pandemic created a division. This has left the healthcare structure in rural communities even weaker than it was. How can small towns survive like this?

My time back home since I graduated from St. Catherine’s has been filled with tremendous learning experiences. Before entering a conversation or space, I am intentional in deep listening, asking questions, and coming to an understanding. It takes patience and tongue-biting, but out of respect I do my best to meet the person where they are at.

After a full year of protecting ourselves from the pandemic, I know people are desperate to enjoy life with others — living in a small town where the next biggest town is almost an hour away is isolating enough.

I understand that some people want to get back to carefree days of laughter and joy with others. I also understand that some immigrants and refugees are hesitant to receive the vaccine due to their experiences with the government in their homeland. I understand that community members want to choose what they want and will do.

It does not make me any happier to understand where folks are coming from, but it does help me better understand where my community is.

There is work to be done to deconstruct individualism. There is work to do around racial bias. There is work to elevate and bring in community on collective efforts.

Small towns can be communities where we look out for our neighbors. Today, that involves bridging racial and cultural tension, starting a small mutual aid fund, and wearing a mask and getting the vaccine from a place of care and respect for our community.