Mary Swander, BEI Senior Fellow, recently was featured in the Des Moines Register with an article written about her effort to bring information about COVID-19 to the Amish. Read the original article here or keep scrolling.
In eastern Iowa, concerned neighbors take steps to ensure Amish get word about COVID-19
A conversation with one of her Amish neighbors near Kalona left Mary Swander feeling uneasy.
It was March 13, five days after Iowa announced its first COVID-19 patient, and the elderly man Swander was speaking with seemed unaware of the pandemic that was just then creeping into Iowa. The longer they spoke, the more her worry grew — for her friend and the other 1,200 Amish residents in Johnson and Washington counties.
Swander decided to talk to a few more people at a store that caters to Amish customers. That confirmed her fears.
“They had a vague inkling about it, but they were kind of making a joke out of it. And that’s what got me really concerned, because without TV, radio, internet, they wouldn’t know how bad it is,” Swander said.
“They were kind of half taking me seriously and half-thinking I was alarmist. I could feel that tension.”
The Amish started as a Christian sect that arose in Switzerland and Germany in the 16th century as part of a schism with the Catholic Church. They arrived in Kalona in 1846 and have eschewed modern technology, from automobiles to telephones. They maintain a traditional lifestyle in the clothing they wear and in the way they worship, farm and educate their children.
But they are far from isolated.
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. There are local car chauffeurs who make a living bringing Amish people into Iowa City, where Menards and Walmart are popular stops. The Amish will rent buses or vans for trips to Indiana or Ohio for weddings and funerals, Swander said. Lacking health insurance, they will travel by train to Mexico if they need a major medical procedure.
Swander is a retired professor, an author and a poet. She has lived among the Amish and studied them for 30 years. Her house used to be a one-room schoolhouse used by Amish families.
From her window last week, she could see Amish children still riding their bicycles to attend their current school.
Swander knew what exposure to the coronavirus could mean for a segment of society that hadn’t gotten the word about social distancing.
“They’re a very communal culture, so they have these large gatherings, especially weddings and funerals. And they have church in their homes, so they might have like 200 people in their house for church or their barn or their basement,” Swander said.