By James Nute & Daniel Rad

Rural poverty is a “hidden form of deprivation,” this is because of a combination of factors including the so-called “rural idyll”, natural surroundings and the alleged image of wealth associated with the countryside. These factors combined lead to rural communities often being ignored in the broader plight of low-income deciles amid the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic sweeping the world. The health impacts of COVD-19 are becoming clearer by the day, with those with underlying conditions most at risk from mortality. However, how each area responds to the disease is now the latest task at hand — with rural communities now seeing severe damage in terms of livelihoods and health outcomes.

Rural regions and their several constituent councils are classified as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). These regions accommodate popular tourist spots like the Lake District National Park, and several dozen market towns and hundreds of villages popular with visitors. Other AONB areas heavily reliant on tourism include Devon and Cornwall, Northumberland, and vast swathes of Scotland including the “Highlands and Islands”. In rural Ireland, the disappearance of income from tourism and related activities has had substantial deterioration because of lockdown measures put in place by the Dublin government.

As work in rural communities in the twenty-first century is now heavily geared towards tourism and visitors, these districts are disproportionately harmed by measures in place to protect society. That group is also hit by the varied nature of “work” in the countryside, be it part-time or seasonal labour. It is these very deciles, often the youth who have seen significant setbacks in recent years, be it getting on the property ladder or finding work due to the 2009 economic crash and subsequent failure of the government to tackle rural unemployment.

Digital schooling outcomes

Moves to push so-called “home-working” are also touted as one short-term measure out of the economic plight of many, however, considering the varied nature of many workers in the countryside it remains to be seen how they could adapt to this method of work considering many are not in traditional office jobs which are more closely aligned with urban life rather than countryside living. Further, the weak state of rural broadband and digital connectivity places the rural community at a significant disadvantage as the infrastructure remains limited in many locations. Young households are confronted by the call to remain at home as schools proceed to remote working. Patchy broadband and 4G and expensive monthly costs place families often needing extra support at a disadvantage than their more geared-up urban counterparts.

Anecdotal evidence from rural Cumbria and Lancashire of trial home-schooling exercises have shown that lower-income families were not ready and often unable to their children at home. Parents in small villages with poor internet connections both 4G—through school mobile applications—and landline broadband struggled with demands from schools including significant amounts of printing paper, with many parents complaining they did not have computers or printers to meet the teacher’s programmes. In the UK context at least, as many casual workers were already receiving benefits in the form of Universal Credit, they said they were not “furloughed” as part of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s pledge to keep families afloat.

The informality of work, which is prevalent in many segments of rural society, has also led to a significant increase in demand for food banks. However, those in the weakest position, i.e. those furthest from towns to take delivery during the lockdown, have also struggled to get in touch with the very food banks which are now seeing increased demand from across the board. However, in another side development, rural areas are also now banding together to help those in need with food collections. Reports from social media suggest that local area food banks have seen an increase in supplies from communities both urban and rural but also “a 300% increase in demand,” which is not entirely unexpected considering the sudden change in lifestyle.

The “grey” countryside

Also, a significant growing demographic is the “grey countryside,” or so-called baby boomers (born between 1944 and 1964); this cohort now opts to live in rural areas as it offers many benefits including savings on properties compared with urban environs. However, as this segment has enlarged in recent years, it has also brought with it significant demands. Rural areas have a population share now skewed in the older population’s favour, however, services supporting their needs have consistently lagged compared with its urban counterpart. Further, this group and the generation above them described “the silent generation” are now the demographics that require the most amount of care straining the historically weak care infrastructure.

As this group now requires “shielding” measures, as dictated by central government, their removal from society has another knock-on effect of less labour—significantly more acute in the charity sector where over 65’s make up the bulk of the labour force. This group has historically had one of the highest spending patterns, especially in the countryside where their use of local tradesmen often supports swathes of the younger generations. However, social distancing measures put in place are now seeing significant knock-on effects on the health and wellbeing of this severely isolated group. With a low rate of high-speed internet connectivity in rural environments, those who have previously opted to live away from cities in their retirement may have a worse mental wellbeing outcome to the virus—even if they remain COVID-19 free.

As at-home caring infrastructure continues to be strained by workers who have to self-isolate, the elderly cohort is at significant risk to their health from other ailments and conditions they may already have. As is now being reported in British media, those who have ongoing health conditions and are fearful of COVID-19 have opted to avoid contact with the outside world. Hospitals in the UK have reported a significant drop in all hospital admissions in both accident and emergency and outpatients’ appointments. There has also been a significant drop in the care being given in rural environments as many services are now working on reduced hours including doctors, pharmacies and home food deliveries.

Social isolation is a pressing problem in rural populations, according to a Guardian article written by Nicola Davis in 2017. She notes that isolation is a growing dilemma for older people—a sector of society which is larger in rural communities than in towns. She notes that 23.5% of rural residents over the age of 65, compared 16.4% of metropolitan citizens, said they felt isolated.

“An ageing rural population, the authors point out, brings a number of challenges. These include the fact that older people often have poorer health and greater care needs, issues compounded by the greater distances to healthcare services and poor public transport,” she wrote. Adding, “Financial poverty in rural areas is also highly concentrated amongst older people, with around one-quarter of those in poverty in pensioner households.”

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