Last August, I drove down Interstate 5 for a five-day float trip through the lower Rogue River Canyon. I stopped in Roseburg at the local Safeway to provision my raft. Roseburg was my home from 1974 to 1992, where I practiced emergency medicine in the local hospital. But this was a difficult homecoming. Like the rest of Oregon, the community was battle-weary from the pandemic, school closures, business closures and from months of social distancing. But the pandemic had also divided the community in ways deeper and more visceral than in many urban parts of the state.
I keep in touch with several Douglas County physicians I have known for years. They told me the medical system was in crisis, the hospital overloaded and two to three people were dying from COVID each day, mostly young and almost all unvaccinated. Adding to this medical tragedy, was the hate and discontent they saw permeating this once tightly knit community. There were demonstrations protesting vaccine and mask mandates and angry confrontations at school board meetings.
While it is easy to blame the pandemic for this division, the problem runs much deeper — rooted, at least in part, in the long-term economic challenges faced by many rural communities and in a sense of isolation from the distant political power centers to the north. Economic struggle and isolation have been the daily experience of many people in rural Oregon, and they preceded the pandemic by many years. Add to this the intersection of state mandates with people who do not react well when told what to do by outsiders — and you have the formula for anger, frustration and division.
In the grocery store, I saw stressed and overworked clerks, struggling to be upbeat and welcoming to their customers. I encountered people without masks, many of whom looked haggard, weary, worn down by life — concerned with how they were going get through the month, pay the rent and feed their families. People just trying to get by, just trying to survive.
It brought to mind a time over 30 years earlier, during the recession of the 1980s when I was practicing in the emergency room. Interest rates surged to 16% — the housing market collapsed, and along with it the demand for lumber. Hundreds of loggers and mill workers were laid off and unemployment in Douglas County reached 19%.
When the recession came to Roseburg, a woman in her late 30s came to the ER. She had a ragged cut on her left cheek, surrounded by a dark, swelling bruise that had closed her eye. It wasn’t a serious laceration and was easy to close, but it looked to me like she had been hit by something. As it turned out, the injury had been inflicted by her husband of over 15 years. Several months earlier he had been laid off from his job at the Sun Studs sawmill, where his father had worked before him.
They had had a good marriage. But after her husband lost his job, he started to drink more heavily, and became sullen, depressed — and then abusive. Over the next few months, I began to see more of this, often people I knew — substance abuse, domestic violence, the disintegration of families. I was witnessing the human and social consequences when proud, hard-working people, through no fault of their own, were suddenly unable to provide for their families. A loss of pride, independence and a sense of purpose. These were the faces of despair and hopelessness. It is an experience I never forgot.
I lived in Roseburg for 18 years and I know these people. I sewed them up in the ER, set their broken bones, fished with them on the North Umpqua and drank beer with them. We often didn’t agree politically, but we liked and respected one another. And they sent me to the Legislature four times. They were, and remain, good people and good citizens who love their community. The difference was that before the recession of the 1980s, most of them had good jobs — stable incomes, hope and the time to engage in and with their communities. Many of our small rural communities have never fully recovered. They are struggling and don’t see any help, or even acknowledgment of their situation from their government.
Mandating anything into this environment threatens one of the few things over which they feel they still have some control — their sense of freedom. And when their sense of freedom is threatened, it overpowers their sense of community — especially when they have little economic security or hope that things will change. It is tragically dividing communities that are already struggling. We might have avoided with a different approach, but we can still learn from it, if we have the wisdom to do so.
Don’t get me wrong — I fully support both masks and vaccination mandates. At the same time, I think the anger, division and discontent we see around our state, may have less to do with COVID and mask mandates than it does with the impact on proud people and tight knit communities when they lose the ability to provide for their families, feel that the economy is rigged against them, and that there is no help coming from their elected government, which in Oregon, is controlled largely by urban interests.
Addressing this problem may be one of the most significant, most difficult, yet most important challenges we will face in the post-COVID world. It speaks to the urgency of developing a new Oregon vision that includes all of us — both socially and economically. A new story about Oregon and Oregonians that can create a sense of shared identity and common purpose.