It’s likely that, when the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is written and discussed in the future, one of the biggest failures to be identified will be that of missing the mark — doing the right things, but in the wrong ways.

One of the biggest failures, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been our failure to adequately protect and react to the needs of the most vulnerable — residents of nursing homes, the poor, the “essential worker” and marginalized communities.

The statistics continue to bear this out. COVID-19 is deadlier in communities of color, in nursing homes, amongst those for whom quality healthcare is most inaccessible. Locally, the death rate has been relatively low, perhaps because the quality and accessibility of healthcare, but what we have here is something that most rural communities lack.

We know these disparities exist in health outcomes and we can and must attempt to correct them where they do, but we also must work to ensure that the pandemic’s other curses are not visited upon rural areas such as ours with little to no response.

For the most part, Eastern Kentucky has been spared the high death rates seen in other places. What we have not been spared are the other impacts. Economically, the already-struggling region has seen employment fall by double digits.

That’s not the unemployment rate, which has also skyrocketed. That’s employment rates, a greater indicator of what’s actually going on. The coal industry, already on the ropes, has taken some big hits in recent months, with those miners who have been able to weather the storm of the past few years finding themselves on the unemployment lines.

It’s a perfect storm. We recognize that the rest of the nation, and indeed the world, is struggling through many of the same economic factors. But many of those other places are better equipped that Eastern Kentucky to bounce back without outside intervention.

That’s why we’re calling for the planning for Eastern Kentucky’s future at the federal and state level to begin and begin to be implemented now, not later.

Eastern Kentucky and other similarly-situated communities must be placed at the front of the line for aid and assistance aimed at diversifying and strengthening economic outcomes, just as at-risk communities must be placed at the front of the line for COVID-19 interventions.

A nation is only as good as how it treats its least important and most marginalized. If, at this time, we fail to remember those struggling the most, then we’re in danger of losing the last vestiges of what once did make or could have made this nation great.

It’s also incumbent upon those at the local level of government to not get bogged down in the chaos and activity of our current situation and instead keep an eye toward the future.

It’s time now to figure out what the “other side” of this looks like for communities like ours and to make the best positive outcome happen. We need federal and state support, but that has to simply undergird what’s taking place in the counties and cities of our region. Without that foundation, money simply thrown at the problem will not solve the problems, but can instead make them worse.

What we’re saying is: Don’t let us be left behind again. Put us at the forefront and everyone else will be lifted up with us. Let us lag behind and the impacts will affect all others negatively.

The choice is ours. The choice is yours. The time for decision is now.

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