In Appalachia, people watch COVID-19, race issues from afar

The ice-cold water spills relentlessly into a concrete trough from three pipes driven into a hillside near the edge of town.

People have been coming to the trough for at least a century, since horses were watered here and coal miners stopped by to wash off the grime. People still come – because they think the water is healthier, or makes better coffee, or because their utilities were turned off when they couldn’t pay the bills. Or maybe just because it’s what they’ve always done.

As Tarah Nogrady collects water in plastic jugs to lug back home, she doesn’t wear a mask, like so many around here. Nogrady doubts that the coronavirus is a real threat – it’s “maybe a flu-type deal,” she says.

It’s a common view in the little towns that speckle the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, where the pandemic has barely been felt. Coronavirus deaths and protests for racial justice — events that have defined 2020 nationwide — are mostly just images on TV from a distant America.

For many here, it’s an increasingly foreign America that they explain with suspicion, anger and occasionally conspiracy theories. The result: At a time when the country is bitterly torn and crises are piling up faster than ever, the feeling of isolation in this corner of Ohio is more profound than ever.

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This story is part of the Looking For America project, produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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It’s easy to dismiss COVID-19 in these sparsely populated rural counties, some of which can still count their deaths from the virus on one hand. Local politicians hint that even the small death tolls might be inflated.

Many of Nogrady’s neighbors think the pandemic is being used by Democrats to weaken President Donald Trump ahead of the election. Some share darker theories: Face mask rules are paving the way for population control, they say, and a vaccine could be used as a tool of government control.

“I think they want to take our freedoms,” Nogrady says, a baseball hat turned backward on her head. “I believe the government wants to get us all microchipped.”

Appalachian Ohio was the first stop on a road trip The Associated Press is taking across the country, as the most divisive election in decades is looming. We wanted to look at the issues that exploded onto the national consciousness this year — COVID-19, economic meltdown, protests linked to race — through the eyes of different regions, myriad Americans. Three of us from the AP planned to go to Ohio and Illinois, to Kentucky and Georgia and Mississippi, and then out West, looking for windows into a country that can seem so contradictory, so confusing.

We came to southeast Ohio because it’s where President Lyndon Johnson decades ago first mentioned the Great Society, perhaps the most audacious federal push to remake America since World War II. When Johnson gave his speech in 1964 at Ohio University, the hills of Appalachian Ohio were some of the most fiercely Democratic places in America.

“We must abolish human poverty,” Johnson proclaimed, foreshadowing a torrent of federal programs that would eventually include Medicare, Head Start preschool, environmental laws and a push for equal justice.

These hills were then a patchwork of closed coal mines, undernourished children and houses without indoor plumbing. But applause surged through the thousands of people in the audience. They believed.

Not anymore.

Now, except for the county of Athens, where Ohio University nurtures a more liberal electorate, the region is fiercely Republican. People who a generation ago believed in the president’s promises to change their region forever now have a deep distrust of Washington – and a defiant sense that they are on their own.

The idea that Washington can solve America’s problems is blasphemy.

“It’s impossible!” said Phil Stevens, a deeply conservative Republican who speaks in exclamation points, then apologizes for doing so. “Ridiculous!”

Stevens, 56, runs a small auto repair business and used car lot in a narrow valley where his family has lived for generations. He talks about the anger and suspicion that thread through the hills, about a deep distrust of the government, about friends stocking up on weapons and ammunition. A former Democrat, he now derides the party as a rabble of left-wing extremists who won’t even stand up for police officers during riots.

“I fear our country’s not far from collapse,” he said. “We’ve taken it and taken it. And there’s going to be a lot of people that just ain’t taking it no more.”

The political ground of southeast Ohio began to shift decades ago. But in 2016, counties where Democrats once had sizable minorities swung hard to the right — part of a broader national wave of working-class regions that helped Donald Trump take the White House.

Trump was unlike any candidate they’d seen before. He was the perfect candidate for a region that not only expects little from the government, but also mistrusts it deeply. In many counties Trump took more than twice as many votes as Hillary Clinton.

Although coronavirus deaths here are still relatively rare, its economic impact is widely felt. Unemployment skyrocketed to highs of nearly 18 percent amid early virus shutdowns, doubling in some counties from March to April. While those rates have come down since, nearly every county in the region is still worse off than at the start of the year.

Six months into the pandemic, businesses from used car lots to barbershops to organic farmers are battered. Stevens has seen business plunge by 30 percent or more.

Like so many other Americans, Stevens is trying to make sense of the chaos of 2020.

“You’re just sitting here minding your own business, and things start crumbling all around you,” he said, shaking his head. Only God knows, he said, when America will return to normal: “And I sometimes think we’ve got Him scratching His head because this is a bunch of craziness.”

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