The COVID-19 pandemic has required many people to adapt their lifestyles and livelihoods to mitigate the spread and impact of the virus. A new report by SEFARI researchers at the James Hutton Institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has shed light on the impacts of, and responses to, the pandemic in rural and island areas of Scotland, showing strong community bonds in the face of adversity.
The research aimed to understand the experiences of the pandemic in rural and island communities, and to identify the factors that support and promote resilience in Scottish rural and island communities. A further objective was to consider potential routes to a medium to long-term recovery process. Findings show that the impact of COVID-19 on rural and island communities has been place and person-dependent as well as defined by their levels of digital connectivity. Impacts were felt to be more challenging in these communities due to ageing populations, in-migration of retirees, availability of affordable housing, peripherality issues and limited economic diversification. The perceived slow response to the pandemic by local authorities was criticised.
Dr Mags Currie, a social scientist at the James Hutton Institute and lead author of the study, said: “Rural and island communities have all felt the impacts of COVID-19. Specific factors that have increased their vulnerability include reliance on limited employment sectors; being located far from centralised services, for example hospitals; limited digital connectivity; and an ageing population.
Rob Mc Morran, interdisciplinary researcher in the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC, said: “Communities with a more resilient response have some or all of the following features: a strong sense of community; community organisations and local businesses that are responsive to local needs; the existence of strategic partnerships between community organisations and the public/private sector; and good digital connectivity.”
Mags added: “The pandemic has brought rural vulnerabilities into sharp focus; however, the people we interviewed were optimistic that novel approaches used in responding to the pandemic should be continued and enhanced in the future. Strategic and joined-up partnerships between community, public and private sector organisations will remain important, as well as flexible funding mechanisms to enable place-based and context-specific responses.”
SEFARI researchers highlighted five prominent factors that promoted resilience in rural and island communities: community cohesion; strategic partnerships and responsive service delivery; the role and responsiveness of community anchor organisations; responsive local businesses and services; and digital connectivity and upscaling online systems.
Participants felt that rural and island communities have been vulnerable to Covid-19 for multiple and often inter-connected reasons: reliance on a few key industries; centralised service provision; limited digital connectivity; exposure to tourists; food supply issues; and ageing populations. However, stronger community bonds in many rural and island communities were perceived to have increased their resilience due to effective community-based response strategies.
The study also identified emerging themes from what participants felt a rural recovery should look like. To maximise the chances of rural and island communities thriving, the researchers recommend building on new partnerships and supporting community anchor organisations; capitalising and rewarding community spirit; encouraging young people to move to rural areas; retaining and enhancing digital connectivity opportunities; strategic partnerships which deliver place-based solutions; supporting adaptable local businesses; supporting diversification of the rural economy; enhancing the knowledge base on local-regional vulnerabilities; and retaining a flexible, targeted and responsive approach to financial support.
The report Understanding the response to Covid-19: exploring options for a resilient social and economic recovery in Scotland’s rural and island communities, by Margaret Currie, Rob Mc Morran, Jonathan Hopkins, Annie McKee, Jayne Glass, Ruth Wilson, Elliot Meador, Christina Noble, Marcus Craigie, Simone Piras, Fiona Bruce, Abigail Williams, Annabel Pinker, Sarah Jones, Carly Maynard and Jane Atterton, is available at: https://sefari.scot/document/rural-and-island-communities-response-to-covid-19.