COVID-19 and the countryside. Rural areas: distant from the pandemic?

By Andrew S Maclaren and Lorna J Philip, University of Aberdeen

The geographical story of COVID-19’s development has tended to focus on cities, where dense populations and high mobility rates within and across urban areas have created pathways for coronavirus to spread easily. In contrast rural places have been presented as ‘safe havens’ in a time of crisis. This is an oversimplification and deflects attention from the impacts of the pandemic on rural areas.

Population mobility has also affected rural spaces across the Global North throughout the pandemic. International and local travel restrictions were introduced in many nations by March 2020, but this did not completely halt movements into rural areas. Many people who owned a rural second home, a camper van, or had family members already resident in a rural area, took flight to the perceived safety of the countryside as the imposition of national lockdowns loomed. As strict lockdown measures eased flows of visitors returned to rural beauty spots, with many holidaymakers flocking to the UK’s rural areas for ‘staycations’.

This movement of people was not universally welcomed. For example, in the United Kingdom some rural communities were so concerned about the influx of both day visitors and those looking to stay for longer that they took direct action during lockdown to keep non-locals away, erecting ‘keep out’ notices and closing car parks and other visitor facilities. Some rural accommodation providers were also publicly criticised for taking bookings for such visits during the national lockdown.

Such responses to the urban exodus were caused by fears that rural health and social care services would be unable to cope if COVID-19 cases increased in these areas. Both distance from urban centres and low population density created an imagined safe space from a virus spread by close contact but COVID-19 has brought sharply into focus the precariousness of rural healthcare, especially in remote communities.

More than a year on from the WHO’s announcement of a global pandemic many rural communities are eager to welcome back the visitors who, by supporting tourist-orientated and other local businesses, are a mainstay of local economies. The predicted surge in domestic, rather than international, holidays in summer 2021 will offer a much-needed boost to rural areas. Incomers to small communities are potentially, however, a double-edged sword. Those intending to visit Scotland’s island communities have been urged to take a COVID test before travelling in efforts to minimise the risk of the virus being imported to communities where it has been all but eliminated.  This is an unwelcome reminder that incoming visitors present a risk of the virus returning during the tourist season.

Fragile services and community responses.

The pandemic has highlighted the perceived strength of community spirit and the social capital embodied within rural communities. This was observed during the first lockdown in the UK when numerous examples were reported of community groups responding to the pandemic by mobilising new and existing volunteers to support vulnerable community members. These expressions of community solidarity and mutual support contribute to the reproduction of idyllic visions of rural spaces. Yet, in many cases they are responses to the decline in formal services in rural areas, which has been observed since the 1970s and has led to “tight community networks able to self-organise to adapt to structural changes” (OECD, 2020, p. 5).

Communities have stepped in to fill gaps left by the closure of shops, pubs, and post offices or cuts to a public bus service by creating new community facilities and services, often operated on a social enterprise model, and making use of voluntary labour. Rural volunteer pools are dominated by older adults, something that has been highlighted by COVID-19 as it has disproportionately affected this group, whether through contracting the virus, or through being required to shield due to perceived vulnerability. The depletion of the volunteer pool has tested community resilience. A response has been to mobilise younger adults, many of whom have become involved in supporting their communities. However, during the second UK-wide lockdown, imposed in late December 2020, stories about rural volunteering and communities rallying round to face the lockdown together have not hit the headlines. It is unclear whether this is because this rural response to the pandemic is no longer considered newsworthy or whether the response is more muted than it was in the spring of 2020. It remains to be seen whether the stimulus for volunteering efforts and wider community engagement activities will persist post-pandemic.

The route out of COVID restrictions: rural perspectives

COVID-related restrictions continued to operate in the UK and elsewhere through the autumn of 2020 and the winter of 2020-21 and, at the time of writing, reports of new waves of the virus in India, mainland Europe, and Latin America are hitting the headlines. In the UK, the rollout of vaccination programmes gives signs of hope of a return to pre-pandemic life. However, these programmes illustrate yet another way in which geographical disparities are playing out during the pandemic.

Within nations where vaccinations rates are proceeding apace, delivery of this massive undertaking has highlighted urban-rural as well as socio-economic disparities. Across the UK large-scale vaccination centres have been set up in cities and towns. Although some rural residents have been offered appointments at their GP practices, many have been required to travel considerable distances to receive a vaccination. In late January 2021 the Financial Times reported that 871,000 people lived more than a 30-minute drive away from their nearest vaccination site. More starkly, the same report noted that 5.3 million people in England faced a journey of an hour or more by public transport to access a vaccination centre. Rural ‘vaccine deserts’ have emerged, bringing a risk that poorer, older and vulnerable rural residents, compared with their urban counterparts, face accessibility challenges in attending vaccination appointments, another manifestation of the long-standing accessibility challenges faced in everyday rural life.

The pandemic has exacerbated entrenched issues and highlighted more recent difficulties faced by many rural communities. It has provided an imperative to tackle entrenched problems and offered suggestions for overcoming others. For example, national COVID lockdowns spurred innovations in the digital economy, e-Health and online education. These developments have mitigated some of the impacts rural communities have faced following local service closures. Online opportunities also help overcome accessibility challenges and social isolation. However, pandemic-induced reliance upon digital connectivity has served to further illustrate pronounced rural digital inequalities and the need to develop sustainable solutions to connect the ‘final few’, upgrade slow and unreliable fixed broadband and improve mobile connectivity. GP services are frequently identified as a ‘core’ rural service. In Scotland, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of rural GPs through their role in local vaccine delivery. This local service provision is, however, at odds with the new GP contract which promoted the centralisation of primary care services, an approach considered ill-suited to rural practice and which may further exacerbate problems with rural GP recruitment and retention and, in turn, the longer term viability of GP services in rural areas. Post-pandemic there will remain a need for the rural population to use in-person services and efforts could be made to develop safe walking and cycling routes and encourage more use of rural public transport services, supporting the rural population to become less dependent on private vehicles, improving accessibility for those without a car and helping rural areas to make a contribution to national net zero carbon aspirations. Finally, the pandemic has prompted more people to seriously consider a residential relocation which favours rural areas. There is a danger that this expression of residential preferences could exacerbate existing acute pressures on rural housing markets, but if those choosing to move relocate to areas other than already pressured areas such as those favoured pre-pandemic by commuters, a new rural population revival could help to transform the fortunes of numerous rural communities.

About the authors: Andrew S. Maclaren is a research fellow in the Institute of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, having previously held a teaching fellowship at the university in the Department of Geography and Environment. Andrew completed his doctorate at the University of Aberdeen after undergraduate and postgraduate studies at The University of Edinburgh. His interests lie in cultural, political, and social geographies with a particular focus on everyday life. His research has engaged with the lived experience, conceptualisation, and understanding of rural spaces and places. Andrew’s current research studies include investigating the recruitment and retention of doctors to rural areas in Scotland, as well as a pilot study exploring the public’s perceptions of telemedicine in rural areas in Grampian, Scotland. Andrew’s wider research has been published in leading geography and interdisciplinary journals including Progress in Human Geography and Sociologia Ruralis. Lorna J. Philip is a senior lecturer in Human Geography and Depute Head of the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on contemporary rural life, especially change induced by rural demographic ageing. She has undertaken research, funded by UK Research Councils, which has focused on retirement transition migration into rural areas, the potential of new digital technologies to promote social interaction amongst older rural adults, patterns of rural digital exclusion and explorations of rural digital divides. Recent work exploring the long-term impacts of flooding has provided insights into how rural communities respond to an unanticipated shock at different stages of a post-flood journey, findings potentially of relevance to understanding responses to the COVID-19 emergency.

Suggested further reading

Maclaren, A. S., & Philip, L. J. (Forthcoming). Geographies of the rural and the Covid-19 pandemic. In G. Andrews, V. Crooks, J. Pearce, & M. J. (Eds.), Covid-19 and similar futures: geographical perspectives, issues and agendas. London: Springer.

Sparke, M, Anguelov, D. (2020) Contextualising coronavirus geographically. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Allan R, Williamson P and Kulu H (2017) Unravelling urban-rural health disparities in England.  Population Space and Place

de Luca, C., Tondelli, S., Aberg, H.E. (2020). The Covid-19 pandemic effects in rural areas. Tema. Journal of Land Use, Mobility and Environment, Special Issue Covid-19 vs City.

Mueller, J. T., McConnell, K., Burow, P. B., Pofahl, K., Merdjanoff, A. A., & Farrell, J. (2021). Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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