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How Is Appalachia Grappling With The Coronavirus? Humor, Resilience, And Compassion

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Caitlin Tan
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WVPB
Eddie Austin, a furniture builder in Hamlin, W.Va., works at his company EA Woodworks.

Usually this time of year marks the start of festival season. So many little communities throughout the region celebrate springtime in their own way. But things are basically on pause right now as the country holds its collective breath. 

On this week’s episode of “Inside Appalachia,” we check in with our friends and neighbors across the region, many of whom are hunkering down at home, trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, much of Appalachia faced an uphill economic struggle. The “Inside Appalachia” team often has reported on some of the solutions communities believe will bring economic prosperity, as well as hope, back to the region. But in some ways, Appalachia is even more vulnerable economically, and stands to lose even more, as the spread of COVID-19 is leading to massive unemployment for people in the service industry. Add to those challenges the region’s aging population and vulnerable health system.

But Appalachians are nothing if not resilient. In this episode, we discuss these tough questions, and look for hope as we move forward. 

In This Episode

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Credit Caitlin Tan / WVPB
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WVPB
Clara Lehmann, of Helvetia, W.Va., co-owns the Hutte Restaurant there.

How The Artisan Community Is Responding To Coronavirus 

For the last year and a half, we’ve been working to tell the story of Appalachia through the lens of folklife traditions  —  including stories about making salt rising bread, handmade furniture and old-time music. For a lot of these artisans, their art or craft provides their primary income, and a lot of them depend on social events like concerts, farmer’s markets and craft fairs.

Folkways reporter Caitlin Tan reached out to some of the artists, craftsmen and local business owners she’s interviewed to see how they’re doing right now. 

Clara Lehmann, co-owner of the Hütte restaurant in Helvetia, W.Va., said that although locals are naturally “socially distant” given the rural nature of the town, everyone is craving a sense of normalcy. In fact, the Hütte had to close to only take-out orders in recent weeks because of the statewide mandate, something the restaurant has never had to do. 

“Everybody is kind of needing right now is the mundane. We all want normal. Our brains are wild and cloudy. The mundane is getting a rösti, or getting a sauerbraten dinner or fixing a door knob,” she said.

Woodworker and owner of EA Woodworks in Hamlin, W.Va., Eddie Austin, said he still has been able to go to the shop every day to work; however, he added that he is worried for what the future will look like if social distancing continues and furniture orders slow down. He offered advice for all artists dealing with the same predicament. 

“Do whatever you can to keep putting one foot forward, to think about the present. What can I do today to not get too discouraged about what tomorrow looks like?” Austin said. “I think people in West Virginia are very resilient. They show a lot of grit, and I think that we’ll survive.”

Bitter Southerner

In our time of quarantine, a lot of us are catching up on podcasts. How about a funny, thoughtful one about the South and southern Appalachia called “The Bitter Southerner Podcast?” 

It is an offshoot of an online magazine called the “The Bitter Southerner,” which is devoted to the culture of the South produced with the support of Georgia Public Broadcasting. One episode, called “Hillbilly Needs No Elegy,” featured conversations with writers of a book called “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds To Hillbilly Elegy,” which was published as a counterpoint to J.D. Vance’s controversial memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” “The Bitter Southerner Podcast” also recently featured a conversation with some of the voices and producers of  “Squidbillies,” an animated show on the Cartoon Network which is set in southern Appalachia. 

Our associate producer Eric Douglas asked host and editor Chuck Reece to talk about why this cartoon, and maybe even comedy in general, helps us understand the thorny issue of how the world talks about Appalachia and how we Appalachians talk about ourselves. 

We recommend you take the time to listen to the full episode of “The Bitter Southerner” podcast that features a hilarious discussion about “Squidbillies.”

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Credit Sydney Boles / Ohio Valley ReSource
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Ohio Valley ReSource
Heritage Kitchen was empty earlier this week as staff reacted to a ban on dine-in service.

Economic Challenges

As the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues to reshape our lives, small-town business owners are worried about the future. This week we feature a report by Sydney Boles about how the community of Whitesburg, Ky., a town already struggling from the decline in the coal industry, is grappling with the new and serious challenges caused by the pandemic.

Learning From Appalachia

Of course, any conversation about Appalachia’s economic future here is largely overshadowed at the moment by fears of a global recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. How we reshape our economic future largely rests in how the country as a whole moves forward to help get millions of people back to work. 

NPR newscaster and Inside Appalachia guest host Giles Snyder spoke with Becca Schimmel, a reporter with the Ohio Valley Resource, who has been covering Appalachia’s changing economic landscape for the last four years. They talk about how people across the Ohio Valley are coping economically with the effects of the coronavirus, and discuss some ideas people have for the future.

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Credit Trey Kay / Us and Them
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Us and Them
Mayor Greg Ingram of Montgomery, W.Va., and Mayor Anne Cavalier of Smithers, W.Va., are shown standing on the bank of the Kanawha River.

Finding A Way Forward, Despite Economic Setbacks

How can we bounce back from a global recession? It’s a question on a lot of people’s minds. Declines in coal production have led many workers to lose their jobs in communities across our region. 

Trey Kay, host of a podcast from West Virginia Public Broadcasting called “Us and Them,” has been spending some time exploring several communities along US Route 60 in West Virginia. He spoke with people there about how they hope to find new ways forward.

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We had help producing “Inside Appalachia” this week from "Us and Them", a podcast from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky., and the Ohio Valley Resource, which is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. 

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Glynis Board. She also edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi helped put the show together this week. 

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

“Inside Appalachia” is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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The main thing you should know about Giles Snyder is that he is an extreme commuter. He drives 90 miles from his home to the NPR newsroom, usually in the middle of the night.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. Her stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards for Best Use of Sound and Best Writing for her stories about Appalachian food and culture.
Eric is a native of Kanawha County and graduated from Marshall University with a degree in Journalism. He has written for newspapers and magazines throughout his career. After completing the certificate program with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, he began producing documentaries including Russia: Coming of Age, For Cheap Lobster and West Virginia Voices of War.