Something’s Amish: how COVID has affected Amish communities

Once the disease entered the community, health officials faced the task of restraining it.

In an increasingly globalised world, connections between people and places have spawned like neurons stretching in a baby’s brain. Experts have spoken of the world shrinking, or tightening, as countries are pulled closer together. This network spanning across the world was lauded. That is, until isolation unexpectedly became a coveted gift. 

As COVID-19 began to seep through global nooks and crannies, countries shut themselves off from others, states adopted an individual identity to ostracise themselves from neighbours, and even communities built temporary gates encircling their people. For most, this was unprecedented and marked an about-face from the interconnection they previously strived for.

For the Amish, practically nothing was amiss. 

The Amish have always drawn the intrigue of many, considering how they purposefully section themselves off from the world circuit. Outside media despairs for insights into their lifestyle, politicians ponder about potential outreach, and non-Amish make movies and write novels about their fantastical existence. Eliminating any connections to the modern world, the Amish live in a simulacrum of a former age: the use of telephones, automobiles, and power-line electricity is prohibited. The Amish are called to strip themselves of individuality and offer themselves to Christ, under the Gelassenheit doctrine. To yield their spirit, clothing is regulated and communities maintain a small and decentralised structure. 

Prioritising the sanctity of the family structure above all else, the Amish justify their aversion to modern technology. Any appliance which tempts an Amish member to remain home, rather than interact with their community face-to-face, represents a harbinger of sin. Thus, they exist in an incredibly tight-knit community that boasts its separation to the outside world. Any proposed inclusion of modern technology is rigorously scrutinised until it is deemed necessary to maintain fruitful self-sufficiency, and divergent enough from modern practice. 

Initially, this entrenched separation proved successful in the face of COVID-19. No cases were reported, and it was imagined they continued a peaceful life in their antique fantasy, undisturbed by the panic choking their neighbours.

However, the Amish are forced to maintain minor interactions with the outside world, often in the form of trade fairs where they sell their wares to finance their community. These minor interactions proved disastrous when a few members contracted the illness, soon engulfing the community in the disease’s flames. Steven Nolt, an Anabaptist scholar, noted the difficulty in tracing the disease. “We don’t know how many cases or deaths,” he explains, “because public officials collect data on race and gender, but not religion.” Additionally, the Amish would be averse to the intrusion of non-Amish public officials who wish to survey the region and assess impact, so the accurate state of the community is near-impossible to ascertain. 

The CDC further illuminated why the Amish may be perniciously affected once the disease took hold in the community. It published that “rural residents might be at higher risk because they are older, have higher prevalences of underlying medical conditions and more limited access to healthcare services.” The airborne pathogen also thrives in the cold environment that the Amish call home. Studies thus noted that there was an unfortunate 125% surge in the excess death rate of Amish members. 

Once the disease entered the community, health officials faced the task of restraining it, made difficult by the incompatibility of modern health measures and strongly-held beliefs. Researchers found that the community harboured many misconceptions, such as that masks wrought harm on the wearer. The community also has a stronger aversion to vaccinations as they are perceived as a form of modern technology — as of June 2021, the Amish were lagging behind their non-Amish counterparts with a paltry 14% vaccination rate. For many, there is now a strong taboo; one Amish member asked a health official that he “not tell his family” after his dose.

In order to connect and communicate, health officials published newspaper ads and printed informative leaflets emphasising the importance of hand-washing and other preventative measures. As the Amish do not access electronic media, their medical understanding fully relies on communicating with their neighbours. Although health officials have dedicated outreach in Amish gazettes, non-Amish anti-vaxxers spread disinformation which plagues the community. In one example, a group advertised “Vaccines can have unintended consequences” paired with a photo of a smashed buggy. 

However, one measure that was surprisingly adopted seamlessly was the shutdown. In May of 2020, the majority of Amish people observed state-mandated stay-at-home orders; the director of the Amish Heritage Foundation, suspected this was because the Amish are “concerned about maintaining an image of being law-abiding,” lest the government intervene and revoke their religious freedom. In some ways, shutdowns were familiar to the Amish, as they employed them in the face of minor local health crises such as measles. The Lancaster County Amish even surprisingly cancelled Easter celebrations after advice from General Health Committees; this was particularly devastating given their core values of community bonding and rituals involving large gatherings. 

Some Amish are adapting and harnessing the situation to espouse their values; at trade fairs, many Amish women have sewed masks to donate to the community. Clearly there is an opportunity for mutual co-operation; health officials should focus on understanding the Amish lifestyle in order to uniquely direct health resources and advice. This is a pertinent lesson for healthcare providers in developing skills of cultural competency and patient-specific care. 

The Amish did not respond when Honi reached out for comment.

Filed under: