I am new here, having moved to central New Hampshire a little over a year ago. Covid-19 arrived in Northern New England with—what I’ll dare to describe as—a bang. News of contagion in Wuhan had been consistent throughout the late winter, as had reports from Seattle in early March. Then, overnight it seemed, New York began to turn part of Central Park into a makeshift morgue. Manhattan is a little less than 300 miles from here. The nonprofit where I work shut down temporarily. I talked with coworkers remotely, and I was struck by the lack of concern for what I saw as the virus’s inevitable progression northward.
I listened to the reasoning for a sense of security: We are too remote, too sparsely populated, too rural, too out of reach, to be susceptible to infection on a cataclysmic scale. We aren’t at risk. Merrimack County is located along the postindustrial zone of the Merrimack River north of Manchester, about an hour northwest of Portsmouth and the sea, and roughly an hour and half southeast of the Connecticut River Valley at White River Junction, Vt. In the 2010 census, Merrimack County had a population of 146,445 people in 955 square miles (compared with Manhattan’s 1.58 million in 22.8 square miles). It is reasonable to assume there would be fewer infections. But I am not a doctor or mathematician. I’m a folklorist. I’m trained to listen, see, observe as an outsider, and note cultural and group patterns. This is how I move through the world. There is no off switch. It was not census data or infection modeling that struck me; rather, I noticed a specific cultural response to a pandemic threat.
I listened to people in my small circle. What emerged was a narrative of New Hampshire as able to weather the virus’s effects at the community and state level. Sometimes thoughtful, sometimes brazen, the reasoning hovered at an intersection of geography, population density, and, largely, what I can identify as central New Hampshire Yankee culture. From my perspective, this appears to be a shared sense of determined self-reliance born of generational survival on small, rugged hill farms and interaction with the natural environment for everyday survival and joy. People had absorbed scientific information. That is not in question. The governor held press conferences with the state epidemiologist, which streamed live, aired on local TV news stations, and were highlighted in print and on radio. Safety guidelines were easily accessible online. People knew, and continue to know, the science. Whether or not it was accepted is not my point here. Scientific facts existed alongside cultural perceptions of New Hampshire as somehow safer, and this idea appeared to be shared throughout my community in everyday conversation.
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As an observer and cultural outsider, I see a disconnect between science and community response. As a folklorist, I see parallels to research by Diane Goldstein, a folklorist at Indiana University, on AIDS narratives in the Canadian Maritimes. She argues that the process of telling AIDS legends—stories that distance the teller from populations identified as “at risk”—takes over and fills the gap where expert perceptions of health do not seem to make cultural sense in context. Understanding community perceptions of risk, she writes, is essential for “understanding attitudes toward risk at the very core of health care.”
Can we see the same pattern emerging with local Covid-19 responses? When a retired neighbor tells me we’re less likely to be exposed to the virus, does she say that because a field separates our houses? Or because neither of us works at a meat processing plant, or is in a nursing home? Our risk is certainly lower, but I do not believe that is the only reason motivating her idea of safety. We both shop at the same gigantic supermarket, whose parking lot is consistently full. We both encounter people who don’t wear masks. My neighbor and I are not living on top of one another, but we are living in 2020, and that means living with the threat of viral exposure.
So, why tell me that we’re safer here? If articulating a belief about safety amidst a global pandemic fills a gap in perceptions of risk, what is the gap? Can it be explained by the trope of Yankee toughness—the dedication to self-reliance and prosperity by one’s own blistered hands? This is the “Live Free or Die” state; can the gap be attributed to a cultural aversion to state intervention?
The importance here is understanding that a gap exists, and varies by community. That may sound obvious when we consider the pushback to mask mandates and limits on large gatherings, but it is not.
We, collectively as a nation, will be forced to examine the overall cultural response to Covid-19 in the decades to come. A loss of 225,000 people (and counting) will not be swept away without a demand for answers as to why and how this happened. The lack of federal governance has ensured that the demand for answers will start at the family, community, and county level. Here, an understanding of culturally motivated actions, perceptions of risks, and the gap between community response and scientific fact will be crucial information for guiding future response to crisis. American culture is not the monolith we often assume. Our responses to Covid-19 exemplify this.
As of October 23, 2020, there have been 814 positive cases and 26 Covid-19-related deaths in Merrimack County, New Hampshire.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.