Rural America is hurting. According to recent data compiled by the New York Times,  the seven-day moving average of daily new cases per capita was 33 percent higher in rural counties than metropolitan counties, and the seven-day moving average of daily new deaths per capita was over two times higher.

The Navajo Nation have been hit incredibly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. These communities are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because they lack sufficient resources and infrastructure that most of the U.S. takes for granted: electricity, roads, broadband, clean water access, and hospitals. In May of 2020, the Navajo Nation had the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country, and more than a third of the population does not have access to running water. It is often difficult for Tribal families to practice social distancing and to protect more vulnerable family members, as they often live in multi-generational households which may be overcrowded. Systemic infrastructure issues are having a direct effect on the ability of these communities to combat the pandemic.

With a lack of action from the federal government, communities have stepped up to provide food to those in need or paying others’ utility bills, it is clear that bold action is necessary on a national scale. One such opportunity is the Rebuild Rural America for the Future Act. This legislation establishes a new $50 billion Rural Future Partnership Fund investing in people and places by providing multi-year, flexible investment to support regional revitalization. This program would directly support the most distressed rural areas of the country, build capacity in those areas, and provide much needed funding and support to ensure that the needs of each community are met.

If we do not use the COVID-19 pandemic to put a stake in the ground, to start thinking innovatively about how we address the systemic and long-term inequities that have led to rural America falling behind its urban counterparts, we may never make up that gap.

To do this, policy makers need to:

  • create opportunity for small businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive in rural areas;
  • provide additional resources to build capacity and provide access to funding; and
  • focus investment on critical sectors like water, broadband and health, providing direct assistance through grants to address revenue losses and allow for future infrastructure projects to move forward.

According to a July survey from NPR, Harvard’s School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one in four rural households were “unable to get medical care for a serious problem when they needed it during the coronavirus outbreak, with 56 percent reporting negative health consequences as a result.”

The health impacts on these communities also have enormous impact on the economic well-being of the people and businesses in those areas. According to that same survey, over 40 percent of rural households "report having household members that have been furloughed, lost a job or had wages or hours reduced as a result of COVID.” That same report said that over 30 percent of rural households had reported using all or most of their savings during the coronavirus outbreak, including over 80 percent of Black or Latino households.

While not recognized, rural areas of the country are more diverse than you might imagine. Whether you are discussing the Blackbelt of Alabama or Native Alaskan populations, the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 are hitting these communities harder than almost any area of the country.

Add the fact that many rural areas had not fully recovered from the 2008 recession, and you can see why rural and tribal areas are under extreme distress. Paired with the current impact of COVID-19, rural and tribal areas are facing extremely difficult times.

Now is the time to drive real and sustained change, while also creating opportunity for small businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive in rural areas. While small businesses have been crippled by the pandemic, they are also the best way to reinvigorate the economy, especially in rural areas. Small businesses employ 47 percent of the United States workforce and generate two-thirds of new jobs. In rural areas, people are more likely to be small business owners, and these businesses tend to be more resilient in small communities.

 The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was launched in the first phases of COVID-19 generated recovery funds that were meant to address the revenue losses of small businesses. Although the CARES Act required the Small Business Administration (SBA) to prioritize “Underserved and Rural Markets”, a report by SBA’s Inspector General in May found that SBA did not meet these goals. The report also suggested that the loans favored businesses with the resources and knowledge needed to apply for such loans.

Ensuring that future PPP funds are available through Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) is an important aspect to ensuring that rural small businesses can access PPP funds. CDFIs often pair funding with technical assistance to those businesses, helping to build capacity and ensuring that businesses that need assistance the most receive it.

 Small business engagement cannot be the sole focus of relief efforts. The systemic inequity that exists between urban and rural areas is a direct result of an aging infrastructure that was already in huge need of investment before the pandemic. In the water sector, rural and tribal systems have sustained major revenue losses. This means providing direct assistance to infrastructure programs by providing grants for operating and maintenance costs. Many rural-focused programs require loans, further exacerbating the economic issues these communities are facing.

Now is the time for bold action, to ensure these vulnerable populations have access to the resources needed to help them survive the pandemic.

 About the author: Nathan Ohle currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), a national non-profit focused on access to water and economic development for rural communities across the country. Prior to RCAP, Ohle served in the Obama Administration as the Senior Advisor at the US Economic Development Administration (EDA), overseeing policy and external affairs for the $250 million agency. He also served as the lead for the US Department of Commerce on the White House Rural Council and the Administration-wide Community Solutions team, leading the engagement in place-based initiatives across the Department of Commerce.