Dr Sarah-Anne Munoz, a Reader in Rural Health and Wellbeing at the University of the Highlands and Islands, considers some of ways COVID-19 is affecting our rural communities.
Over the last four weeks of lockdown, I have been acutely aware that I am in a very privileged position – an academic who can work from home for a university that was perhaps more prepared than most to shift to totally online working and teaching.
COVID-19 has, however, had major impacts on my day-to-day life. I miss working alongside my team in the Centre for Health Science and the ability to carry out ‘in person’ research – as a qualitative researcher my main tools are interviews, focus groups and participant observation.
Before COVID-19, I took press enquiries about issues such as improving primary care in rural areas and how to facilitate mental wellbeing among the rural population – concerns that are very close to my heart. The last few weeks have seen that shift to being asked to comment on how rural communities will cope with COVID-19 and what the potential long-term impacts for rural communities and residents will be.
As researchers, my team and I have had to respond to a host of funding calls asking us to put our social science expertise to use in the fight against COVID-19.
This has seen the Division of Rural Health and Wellbeing team spending much of the last four weeks identifying the key concerns for rural residents and communities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have applied for funding (in partnership with the James Hutton Institute, Voluntary Health Scotland, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the National Rural Mental Health Forum) to progress research in some of these areas and we are actively seeking further collaborative work.
We thought it may be useful to share some of our reflections and questions with you – these are the things that we suggest need to be addressed by research and policy.
The mental health and wellbeing of frontline NHS staff in rural areas
The current crisis has potential negative mental health implications for all frontline NHS staff and it’s vital that we seek ways to support their mental resilience. Particular attention needs to be paid to those working in rural areas where teams are often small and lone working can be the norm. Rural healthcare staff are often intimately embedded into local communities and will inevitably be providing care for their friends, neighbours and loved ones. It’s important to understand how we can best support these staff through the current crisis and with any longer-term impacts on their mental wellbeing.
People living with long-term conditions in rural areas
We need to understand the current and potential future impacts of COVID-19 on those people living with (often multiple) long-term conditions within rural areas, particularly as levels of anxiety and depression are likely to increase. Social isolation may be compounded as levels and durations of formal care are reduced. It will be really important to understand how to reach those living with long-term conditions in rural areas during the lockdown and how best to support them when this is over.
The rural third sector
Third sector and voluntary organisations do a lot to support the social, cultural and economic fabric of rural life. Many of these organisations were already operating ‘on a shoestring’ before the lockdown and the loss of income from sources such as paid for services, grants and donations has the potential to force rural organisations to close. Many rural third sector and voluntary organisations rely heavily on retired and older volunteers – these are some of the people most at risk from COVID-19 and likely to have to remain shielded for the longest time. Third sector and voluntary organisations provide vital services in rural areas – often where there is no private or public alternative – such as transport services. It will be important to capture the impact on the rural third sector and support as many vital organisations to survive as possible.
Rural economic resilience
We are already seeing big impacts on the rural economy. Many rural residents are self-employed or part of small businesses – these are likely to be hardest hit by lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic. Rural areas are also heavily reliant on tourism income, which has entirely dried up. A loss of economic resilience within rural communities will have huge implications for residents’ mental health and wellbeing.
The longer-term effects of social distancing
But it’s not all bad. The Rural Services Network has brought together some examples of how rural communities in England are “working together” to mitigate the negative impacts and we know that similar initiatives are taking place throughout rural Scotland: https://rsnonline.org.uk/covid-19-rural-communities-pulling-together-week-2 . We are hearing informal stories about rural residents rediscovering local outdoor spaces that they had previously considered to be ‘just for tourists’; about levels of volunteerism and neighbourliness increasing; about people ‘meeting’ neighbours over the garden fence or having a conversation through an open window (at an appropriate social distance) for the first time. We hope that capturing and understanding these more ‘positive’ impacts of the current crisis can also from part of our ongoing work.
Research on the impacts of COVID-19 in rural communities is led within the University of the Highlands and Islands Division of Rural Health and Wellbeing by Dr Sarah-Anne Munoz (Reader in Rural Health and Wellbeing), Dr Mark Grindle (Senior Lecturer in Digital Health), Dr Janet Heaton (Research Fellow, Sociology), Dr Sara Bradley (Research Fellow, Social Gerontology), Dr Hannes De Kock (Research Fellow, Psychology) and Dr Ania Zubala (Research Fellow, Arts Therapy).