Opinion: Kansas’ strengths, weaknesses in crisis

April, most experts say, is when we will see the coronavirus peak. Does that mean things will gradually return to normal afterward? That is everyone’s hope. But recovering from the costs — both social and economic — of this pandemic will likely vary a good deal across the country.

On the positive side, Kansas may be weathering the storm somewhat better than some other states. Comparative data provided by Wichita State University shows that as Kansas’ economy is less dependent upon service, entertainment and tourist sectors than is the case elsewhere, we haven’t seen quite the same level of job losses and business closures statewide. The mainstays of Kansas’s economy — food production, manufacturing, education and health care — are generally considered essential and thus have mostly been able to continue to operate.

That’s no comfort, of course, to the many Kansans who are facing unemployment and economic distress. Still, our state’s overall economy may not initially suffer as much as some others’ will.

The same might be said for the people of Kansas. Nowhere in Kansas is there the density that characterizes those cities that have seen the largest outbreaks and thus have had to make extreme responses. But even if such measures become necessary here, they wouldn’t play out the same way. Simply put, Kansans generally have easy access to rural space. When it comes to mental health and minimizing domestic conflict, that matters. As one writer suggested, social distancing in an environment with gardens, fields and locally grown food readily available is very different from social distancing in cramped downtown apartments, with even the parks and sidewalks often so crowded with people trying to find some openness that they become sources of stress.

Looking forward, then, the economic damage Kansas is currently suffering may not be as great, nor the social consequences as severe, as elsewhere. But that’s not the whole story.

As the same Wichita State study warns, food production and manufacturing in Kansas are heavily dependent upon supply chains in equipment and trade that the overall economic health of the nation effectively determines. Service work and other more creative sectors of the economy can snap back as soon as customers return; the same cannot be said for larger industries that need to wait for raw materials to ship or are dependent upon extended networks of specialized workers.

The latter may be a particular crisis for Kansas’ agricultural sector. True, the likelihood of the virus spreading widely in isolated farming towns is quite small. But as the work force in Kansas’ rural counties is also quite small, and as many of those counties — thanks to Republican opposition to extending Medicaid — lack basic health care resources, even a small outbreak could be devastating. The resulting domino effect, with unproductive or failed farms and feedlots forcing closures in ancillary food industries across the state, might hasten rural population collapse, with long-term social, economic and political consequences for the state.

As we wait to see what this plague brings into our lives, our task as Kansans must be to use the resources we have — a relatively stable social and economic baseline — to reach out and help make more resilient those places likely to struggle the most in our recovery, whenever it may come.

— Professor Russell Arben Fox directs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.


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