Mountainous divide should be asset

Mountains matter.

Mountains always have mattered. Our Appalachian Mountains have been, from our nation’s beginnings, a barrier — for better or worse.

The mountains traditionally have delineated the East from the Midwest. The mountains had to be conquered to bring railroads and highways from the eastern part of Pennsylvania to the west.

Some families, including mine, have retained European pronunciations of their names for three centuries because they occupied the mountains. Ethnomusicologists looking at Appalachian music in the early 20th century found melodies that were little changed from English ballads of centuries ago.

Our speech and language have a distinctive twang.

There’s a name for this phenomenon — geographic isolation. Even in the 21st century of a globalized world, geographic isolation occurs, and it’s not just among indigenous populations of the remote Amazon or Pacific atolls.

We are, to a certain extent, the indigenous population of Pennsylvania, the mountain people who have retained vestiges of past centuries in how we live, how we speak, and how we view the world.

Our geographic isolation matters today, as the new coronavirus turns our world upside down in ways that we never imagined.

Make no mistake, the new coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19, are our worst nightmares come true. It is easily spread and has circled the globe in less than six months. We are defenseless against a fearsome disease that readily kills and, in some cases, maims survivors.

In that regard, Pennsylvania has taken the necessary actions to safeguard all of its citizens. The lockdown has been painful but absolutely necessary. Lives have been saved, and the health system has stood up to the challenge because of heroic actions by caregivers and the effect of the restrictions.

That’s all to the good.

However, the maps that will determine when regions will make the first, tentative steps toward reopening need to be revised. The Department of Health maps are not new, and they undoubtedly served a purpose at some point.

But they do not represent today’s reality.

To an extent, they represent regional groupings, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with their ring counties. But other regions make little or no sense, and ours is one of them. We have little in common with Dauphin or York counties.

The mountains should be its own region.

Using state statistics from Friday for counties’ COVID-19 total incidences, 21 of 67 counties had 50 or fewer total confirmed cases per 100,000 population. Of those 21, 17 fall within a mountainous region, from Warren in the northwest to Bradford in north central, down through Blair and Cambria counties to Bedford and Fulton counties.

The statistics make a strong case for a mountain region and a gradual reopening under strict conditions, including continued social distancing, adequate testing opportunities and contact tracing of those who contract this dreaded disease.

This killer disease knows no politics –its victims are Republican, Democrat and Independent — and the battle against it should be nonpartisan as well. Sadly, some of the rhetoric of state officeholders has turned political. It’s not helpful.

The Health Department is working under unimaginable pressure, and changing the reopening map for the commonwealth may not be at the top of its priority list. But it should be undertaken, with respectful, bipartisan advocacy from the General Assembly.

It will not be a grand reopening, but a gradual evolution to a new normal, and the statistical record of the state’s Appalachian region needs to be considered.

Mountains matter.

A journalist for more than 50 years, Don Clippinger is president of Korotkin Enterprises Inc., a Blair County public-relations firm focusing on crisis communications.


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