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 into the impacts of, and responses to, the pandemic in rural and island areas of Scotland, showing strong community bonds in the face of adversity.
Remembering back over a year ago to when the UK lockdown started and supermarket shelves emptied, it was small local shops that stepped in.
The small local shops increased deliveries ensuring that the gap left by the supermarkets was filled.
The report states:
The example of Sanday was given where the shop ordered extra supplies to ensure everyone got what they needed and also set up a DIY and gardening section in response to local demand.
This responsiveness and adaptability to the changing situation was central to the resilience shown in Orkney and in Scotland’s island and rural communities.
There was a strong sense of community responsibility and belonging which resulted in key local groups and organisations pulling together. People checked up on neighbours who were having to shield and offered to collect necessities for them.
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.”
As well as the strengths in our islands, the report also looked at how vulnerable we are. An ageing population, issues with digital connectivity and an over reliance on tourism. The Stay At Home regulations put an end to tourism and in Orkney the cruise ships didn’t come. This exacerbated the economic impact on our islands which were also feeling the hit on our creative industries. Brexit is the double whammy to our economy, particularly for our fishing sector.
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.”
Many more people have had to use the local Foodbank and apply for benefits.
“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
- 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
- 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.
1. Building on existing and new partnerships and supporting anchor organisations
2. Capitalising on and rewarding community spirit
3. Encouraging and supporting young people to move to rural and island communities
4. Retaining and enhancing digital connectivity opportunities
5. Supporting adaptable local businesses
6. Strategic partnerships with deliver place-based solutions
7. Continue to support diversification of the rural economy
8. Enhancing the knowledge base on local-regional vulnerabilities
9. 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 on the SEFARI website at: https://sefari.scot/document/rural-and-island-communities-response-to-covid-19.
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Reporter: Fiona Grahame