Questions on the Amish & coronavirus – awareness, risk, and  protection from disease

With the coronavirus topic heavy in the media, I thought it might be worth addressing several questions regarding COVID-19 infection and the Amish.

Do the Amish know about coronavirus?

Reader Beverly posed this question yesterday. With all the recent hubbub over this public health issue, it might seem odd to think that anyone has not heard of it yet.

Yet the low-tech and less-connected Amish would be obvious candidates to know less about coronavirus, so I understand the question from Beverly.

I would guess that – as with so many things – this depends on the community, but that a decent number of Amish people do know about coronavirus, or would be starting to get the word now.

A general guideline would be the plainer and more isolated the group, the less likely they would know about it (and likewise probably less likely at risk of contracting the virus).

That tends to be the case with all news topics. It might surprise some, but more than a few Amish people don’t know much about what’s going on in today’s politics or current events (lucky them?).

But to give one example, I was just in touch with a Lancaster County Amish friend yesterday, and he was well aware of the coronavirus situation.

He is a business owner – a market stand owner, to be precise – and so he has regular contact with non-Amish people from Pennsylvania and Maryland as customers.

In addition, several of his youth-age sons living at home have smartphones and are plugged-in that way. And of course, they receive news via the old-fashioned local newspaper, which more than a few Amish do.

So Amish in bigger, more progressive communities in particular, and those with regular business dealings with non-Amish people, are more likely to be up to speed on this topic.

Getting the word out: the public health approach

For that matter, I just came across an article out today in Lancaster Online about spreading awareness in the Plain community about this coronavirus situation (“Health officials working to provide Plain sect members with COVID-19 information“).

To get the word out, health officials have been mailing information packets to leaders of Amish churches (I assume bishops and maybe other ministers) with facts about the virus which causes COVID-19 infectious disease and how to take safety precautions.

I would think that the Amish grapevine is going to spread the word here quickly once word gets out – and also if people feel that this is something to be concerned about.

That last part would depend on their perception of the risk – and how well the information is conveyed (is this just something English should be concerned about, or do “our people” have actual exposure risk? Is there are a real danger, or is this akin to the common cold for most? – those types of questions).

I would suppose this would be of concern to Amish (especially the older age bracket) – particularly in a community like Lancaster County which has a lot of contact with non-Amish people, and with many of its members spending time in urban and suburban areas for their businesses (things like market stands and construction companies).

More isolated communities logically have less to worry about.

Several Amish also commented to Lancaster Online on the coronavirus, giving a range of views:

LNP | LancasterOnline spoke with a few Amish men about the new coronavirus Wednesday in Leacock Township. None gave their last names.

Aaron said he and his family were making sure to sanitize as often as they could.

Sam said the coronavirus was a joke.

“It was created to make (President Donald) Trump look bad” and to prevent the president’s reelection in the fall, he said.

Josh said he wasn’t paying much attention to COVID-19 and wasn’t taking any extra safety precautions to prevent himself from being exposed to the virus.

I am not surprised by any of these responses.

Some are concerned – many Amish in general are interested and diligent about maintaining their health (except when they don’t see a reason for concern).

Some are unconcerned (see previous comment). And some even see nefarious forces at work (not sure how widespread this view might be, but we have at least one person considering it “a joke”).

Do the Amish have greater, lesser, or comparable coronavirus infection risk?

This is an interesting question. Steven Nolt comments on it in the article:

Amish families are exposed to fewer households — and potentially the coronavirus — than English families, since Amish children attend small schools with enrollments of 24 to 30, said Steve Nolt, professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College, and senior scholar at the college’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

Additionally, older Amish adults don’t live in nursing homes or retirement centers, which is a concern for public health officials, Nolt said.

He also noted, however, something along the lines of what I said above – that those with businesses could have greater potential exposure.

I would also add to this that if an Amish person is exposed and brings the virus into his or her home and community, I would expect that there would be a good chance – and perhaps a greater chance – of the virus spreading within the community.

This is simply because of the large families and frequent interaction with people that takes place in the typical Amish household, “neighborhood” and church.

Although many non-Amish live in big cities where they are clustered together with others in subways, office buildings, and on the street, it’s quite possible to go through a typical day as an English person relatively isolated from other people.

English people have smaller families, cars, food delivery services, drive-through windows, online ordering, headphones and iPods, and other things that serve to limit our actual human interaction, if we want to.

Amish people gather together regularly for meals, for social events like baking pies and quilting, auctions, and of course church and school. In short, social interaction happens for the most part in person, not through a screen.

In any case this question is something to consider, and I think it could be argued both ways.

Do the Amish have special protection from coronavirus?

Another question that might occur: Are the Amish protected – genetically or otherwise – against the coronavirus?

I would be surprised if someone had any concrete answer to this. This is a relatively new virus that is just making its first (and hopefully final major) incursion into the human population.

That noted, Amish have shown greater resilience to some ailments and diseases compared to the non-Amish population.

Examples include asthma, cancer, diabetes and aging in general, and being overweight. In these cases, effects may be caused by genetic and/or lifestyle factors.

Amish have been shown to have some benefits due to their genes. It is a relatively closed population, which can have beneficial genetic effects as well as negative ones, as in cases of debilitating rare disease.

Amish Church Gathering

Hopefully this COVID-19 situation will be contained to the point that not enough people in the Amish community contract it so as to make a study feasible.

But if it does happen that Amish people are infected by coronavirus, it might be a worthwhile topic to investigate – especially considering the importance of developing a vaccine.

There may be potential useful information to be garnered from the atypical Amish population that could benefit others. But again, hopefully things don’t get that far.

Staying safe

In closing, I personally hope you reading this and your loved ones are able to stay well away from this virus.

The disease caused by the virus is not a death sentence – far from it – but it would be best to avoid it, to state the obvious (and especially for higher-risk people like the elderly and people with compromising medical conditions).

But I also hope that we all refrain from panic, and follow some common-sense precautions to prevent its spread.

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