By SARA AL-MULLA
We have all been guilty of fantasizing about living in a pastoral idyll, surrounded by gorgeous countryside and basking in serenity. It has been no surprise, then, that amid the coronavirus pandemic calamity, many people have flocked to the countryside in search of a haven. Sadly, though, rural communities have been particularly vulnerable during this pandemic and have been subjected to disproportionate pressures compared to urban areas.
Rural communities share a number of characteristics that make them especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s effects. Their populations tend to be smaller, with a large elderly segment that makes them particularly susceptible to developing complications as a result of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Additionally, a large proportion of rural workers do essential jobs, while remote working is not an option due to the nature of their tasks. This also explains why rural populations suffered pockets of high infection rates during the pandemic.
Rural economies are also much less diversified, with industries concentrating on agriculture, fisheries, mining or tourism. Local lockdown restrictions have severely affected these industries, especially service-based activities, causing huge job and income losses in rural populations. Furthermore, the infrastructure in rural communities is not well designed to handle crises. Local health centers have limited capacities in terms of intensive care beds, medical equipment, the number of healthcare workers, and physicians with specialized skills. People are also forced to travel long distances to access their nearest health centers. Remote and sparsely located communities also make it logistically challenging to deliver the necessary support.
Furthermore, the digital divide in rural areas is significant, with lower access to adequate broadband services. With lower digital literacy compared to urban populations, these communities have been unable to access helpful digital services, such as telehealth consultations. And rural schools have been grappling with distance learning due to low investment in this area.
The pandemic has certainly brought to attention the lack of resilience in rural communities to tackle a crisis of this magnitude. Nonetheless, many governments have used this opportunity to make progress in this area and to provide sufficient support to mitigate the pandemic’s effects on rural regions.
Upgrading health and social care services in these regions is a critical step toward safeguarding the well-being of rural communities. Short-term solutions could focus on the provision of mobile clinics or field hospitals to cater for rural areas where adequate facilities are lacking, such as what South Korea has done. Additionally, channeling local cooperatives or community support will be vital in the provision of various support mechanisms, such as operating food banks or helping seniors who cannot leave their homes.
Immediate financial assistance is essential for providing relief to rural communities, specifically to secure essential medical services, support rural businesses, provide subsidies for workers, distribute food vouchers, and offer cash transfers. For example, many European countries have taken steps to ensure that basic services, such as drinking water, electricity, piped gas and telecommunications, are not interrupted in the event of nonpayment. The Australian government has dedicated A$1 billion ($770 million) to support the regions, communities and sectors that have been affected by the pandemic. Other countries, such as Canada and the US, have launched a variety of stimulus packages aimed specifically at small rural businesses to help them cover outstanding operating costs, such as rental fees, electricity bills and supplier costs.
In the long-term, it is imperative that investments are made in reskilling or upskilling local talents to fit local labor market requirements. Planned migration strategies specifically designed for rural areas need to be considered as well. For example, Australia has dedicated scholarships and professional development grants to encourage talents to study and work in rural areas in key professions, such as healthcare. Realizing this opportunity, the Queensland state government has dedicated A$500 million to support unemployed individuals with retraining and job-matching to transition into employment in vital sectors, such as healthcare, agriculture, food production, transport, and mining.
Much investment is needed to upgrade digital infrastructures in rural areas. Perhaps most importantly, rural citizens need access to useful, current and accurate information to combat the widely disseminated misinformation about the pandemic. To this end, Canada, South Korea and the UK have developed special smart applications that include critical information on how people can self-diagnose and manage their COVID-19 infections, in addition to receiving useful guidance. This has been especially critical for citizens living in rural areas with limited access to health services.
The virus has brought to attention the lack of resilience in rural communities to tackle a crisis of this magnitude.
Incentivizing small to medium-sized enterprises that offer digital solutions would certainly allow individuals to attend to their daily chores effortlessly, such as shopping online or using government e-services. An emerging and interesting trend, for example, is opening unstaffed stores that are operated entirely digitally, such as Sweden’s Lifvs grocery stores, which operate in rural areas of the country. The US Department of Agriculture recently announced it is investing $42.3 million to provide distance learning and telehealth services for rural communities. Australia, meanwhile, has delivered more than 51 million telehealth services during the pandemic and is considering a permanent post-pandemic telehealth service. –AN