Dis-connected lives? COVID-19’s impact on rural Scottish communities – and what the future may hold for them
Professor Philomena de Lima considers the many ways in which rural communities have been affected by the pandemic, while also offering some of her own insights of life in COVID-19 times from a Highlands and Islands perspective
Part 1: The impact of COVID-19 on rural communities
Rather than seeing rural and urban in binary terms, it is increasingly recognised as more helpful to see rural-urban as a continuum. On the one hand, rural places are portrayed as ‘left behind’ or ‘on the wane’, helpless in the face of external influences largely driven by urban interests. On the other, they are seen as attractive because of their wellbeing-enhancing characteristics involving closeness to nature, quality and pace of life, close-knit communities and as an escape from urban living. These contradictory tropes and imaginaries of rural places co-exist and endure, impacting on how rurality is experienced and practised.
The Scottish Highlands and Islands are physically diverse. Despite the persistence of particular tropes and iconic images associated with this being a remote region, its embeddedness in a global world through the mobility of capital, goods, services and people challenges the notion of rural as remote, disconnected and lacking in agency. Historically, this is reflected in the clearances which led to the forced and voluntary movement of people to the Americas and Australia to be replaced by sheep, and whose migration in turn led to the decimation of indigenous communities in those countries.
That the region continues to be deeply implicated in the global economy is reflected in numerous ways. For example, the North Sea oil industry, Scottish migrant men working in the oil industry around the world, the increasing reliance on migrant workers, increase in mass tourism and the multinational ownership of iconic industries and landscapes, such as Scottish farmed salmon, whisky and sporting estates, to name but a few.
The Scottish Government’s definition of ‘rural’ is settlements with a population of less than 3,000, which is based on a six-fold categorisation of rural-urban. Seventeen percent of the Scottish population live in rural areas: 6% in remote rural and 11% in accessible rural. This contrasts with the distribution of the population as a whole: 98% of the land mass is located in remote rural and accessible rural areas.1
Research on the impact of COVID-19 on rural areas is ongoing, not easy to access and fragmented. What follows is an account which pieces together a selection of recurring interconnected themes based on a review of literature and research (mostly grey) on the impacts of COVID-19, as well as publications that predate the pandemic.
As someone who has lived and worked in the same dispersed but increasingly suburbanised rural community for more than 30 years, I also include a few observations from personal encounters, conversations and experiences which present some rays of hope since the first lockdown in March 2020.
Economy, labour markets and the cost of living
COVID-19, combined with the impact of Brexit, has revealed the fragility of rural economies and society in regions such as the Highlands and Islands. Brexit has exacerbated the negative consequences in sectors such as construction, tourism, agriculture, fishing and aquaculture , as well as leading to loss of access to EU grants and migrant labour on which some sectors have come to heavily depend upon.2 The Highlands and Islands economy has been adversely impacted upon by the pandemic:3
- There is a predominance of micro-businesses (86.4%) and a higher share of employment in small medium size enterprises (66.9%). This is exacerbated by their lack of capacity to raise financial resources, especially as bank finance is considered to be less accessible than in urban areas.
- The sectors most at risk because of COVID-19 are identified as manufacturing, construction, retail and wholesale, accommodation (related to tourism) and food (e.g. agriculture, aquaculture, fishing ) including processing and drink, and arts, entertainment and recreation. These combined sectors comprise 39% of the share of employment in the Highlands and Islands. Prevalence of precarity related to seasonality, insecurity and low pay is a major feature of most of these sectors.
- The prevalence of the particular sectoral makeup of the region has also made it more susceptible to growing unemployment during the pandemic. Whilst still below the overall Scottish level (6.4%) in September 2020, the rate of unemployment was reported as increasing at a faster rate in the Highlands and Islands (118%) than in Scotland as a whole (95%), compared with March 2020.
- Between July 2019 and July 2020, youth unemployment rose from 3.8% to 9.9%. The outmigration of the young and economically active population for education and work purposes has been a longstanding issue. A lack of good quality job opportunities has led to concerns of further migration of young people and the economically active out of the region. This in turn is likely to compound the existing demographic challenges associated with an ageing population and youth outmigration, in a region where the dependency ratio is already higher than the Scottish average.4
- The changes in welfare provision in 2012, the closure of local offices and the move to a digitised welfare system was already identified as adversely impacting on rural communities.5 Although some households may have benefited from COVID-19 mitigation measures (e.g. Job Retention Support Scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme), many will have experienced significant barriers to accessing financial support because, for various reasons, they may not meet the qualifying criteria. This is largely attributable to the high prevalence of small businesses, with the seasonal and casual nature of many jobs resulting in irregular incomes and people employed in multiple jobs to survive.6 7
- A study on the minimum acceptable standard of income in remote rural Scotland in 2013 (Hirsch et al), updated in 2016, identified once again that remote rural residents incur more household spending than in UK urban areas. The additional costs were attributed to a combination of factors including travel costs related to work and to services, costs of heating homes, and paying for goods compounded by higher delivery charges for online goods. (Bizarrely, with regard to delivery of goods, most of the Highland postcode areas and the Islands are classed as not being part of the UK mainland.)8 9
Access: spatial and social positioning
Access, or a lack of access, are key concepts that underpin much of the discussion on issues such as poverty, social exclusion and social justice more generally in rural communities. Although a conceptual and philosophical discussion about access is beyond the scope of this review,10 it is important to clarify the notion of ‘accessibility’ beyond the normative use of the term.
The idea of accessibility in relation to employment, goods and services being within reasonable reach using transport or digital communications will not address issues of equity unless it also encompasses the social position of people who inhabit a place. ‘A place is not just “more” or “less” accessible, but accessible relative to people in all their different circumstances’ (Farrington, 2007, p320).11 The influence of intersecting social positioning (structural as well as circumstantial factors) that emerge from an individual’s age, gender, socio-economic position, ethnicity/race, experience of being disabled, and so on in shaping their experiences of the pandemics are important factors to consider.12
The closure of local post offices, bank branches and job centres, as well as the centralisation of health and other services in many rural communities, combined with their demographic trends, has resulted in a permanent loss of the only local spaces that may have been available for serendipitous encounters and conversations – thus reinforcing social isolation and creating additional barriers to accessing basic services, which the pandemic is likely to have made worse.13
The digital divide
Access to digital technology during the pandemic has highlighted a range of negative and positive experiences, depending on one’s circumstances. Participants living in remote rural areas experienced the poorest internet connectivity,14 reflecting a persistent digital divide both in terms of the rural-urban divide, where there is uneven coverage and lack of high-speed connections available consistently across the region, as well as the division within the region of households with the resources and skills to use the technology.
For businesses with good digital connectivity, the pandemic has resulted in them adopting innovative methods of sustaining their businesses. Similarly, it has enabled home working for professionals who are in a position to work remotely, thus avoiding additional travel time and costs incurred to get to work.
However, problems of poor connectivity in remote rural places can be compounded when there are a number of members of the same household (e.g., adults working remotely and children accessing school online) requiring access online at the same time and in accessing services such as health provided through video links which depend on a high bandwidth. The increase in homeworking has potentially resulted in women bearing the extra burden of childcare as well as having to withdraw from the labour market to deal with childcare responsibilities.
The impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable groups
The changing demographic trends in regions such as the Highlands and Islands characterised by an ageing population, lower fertility rates and migration of the young and economically active population have been longstanding. The pandemic has compounded and reinforced pre-existing trends and vulnerabilities amongst specific groups in rural communities.15 Although evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on a range of potentially vulnerable groups is difficult to come by, what exists reinforces the importance of taking into consideration the multi-layered nature of individuals’ social positionalities.
Increasingly, centralisation of health and social care, combined with an ageing population, has major implications for accessing services in situ where populations are dispersed, travel distances are great, and there is a lack of affordable public transport. Similarly, issues of access to services for people with disabilities in rural communities is likely to have been compounded. While the use of digital technologies has almost become the norm in the provision of healthcare and may help to mitigate some of the challenges of access, this assumes a reliable internet service and a level of competence in using digital technologies.
COVID-19 has also led to the disruption of public transport provision, and negatively affected low-income households and those without cars. In addition, the costs of public transport even if it were available would be unaffordable for low-income households, reinforcing their social isolation.
An increase in urban flight as retirees migrate to the region from urban areas during the pandemic, as well as anecdotal evidence about the increase in second homes, have raised concerns yet again about access to appropriate and affordable housing (for rent and buying) for people living and working locally. The growth of tourism has also been accompanied by an explosion in Airbnb accommodation which has exacerbated the housing situation even more for those who live in the region. This impacts on young people and young economically active households in particular, who feel they are already being priced out of the market for renting and buying. There are concerns that a combination of the economic situation, weak labour market and lack of housing compounded by COVID 19 may result in further outmigration of young /economically people – resulting in yet another ‘Highland clearance’.
Mental health issues
A number of recent studies have identified COVID-19 and the lockdown measures as increasing social isolation and the prevalence of a spectrum of mental health issues in particular groups. The Rural Covidlife survey of 3,080 participants (ranging in age from 16 to 96 years) found that 38% of the participants reported as being lonely ‘some or all of the time’.
Females and younger participants reported higher levels of loneliness, as well as those living in remote rural areas. All the evidence points to the poorest internet connectivity in remote rural areas potentially exacerbating issues of loneliness and access to support for those who experience mental health issues.16 17
Qualitative research undertaken by Support in Mind Scotland and the National Rural Mental Health explored the impact of COVID-19 on three groups: LGBT, young carers, refuges and asylum-seekers across rural Scotland. For some participants, isolation in rural areas was seen as time to spend in nature and ‘me time’. For others, lack of access to local social spaces, activities and being unable to access face-to-face contact with their local communities and healthcare and support services during lockdown were recurrent themes , reinforcing feelings of social isolation. All three groups had identified COVID-19 as impacting on their mental health, and that very local sources of support such as their family and friends were important for their mental wellbeing.18
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Refugees and Asylum Seekers in rural areas experience numerous challenges (e.g. uncertain futures, language, unemployment, mental health issues, lack of social spaces to socialise which are alcohol-free, etc.) which have been compounded during the pandemic.19 In addition, public funding to support Refugees and Asylum Seekers is woefully inadequate, with the voluntary sector having to provide support on inadequate and insecure funding.
From the experience of work undertaken by Highland Migrant and Refugees Advocacy (HiMRA), the lack of opportunities regarding everyday face-to-face encounters for households to practice English, lack of access to face-to-face socialising as well as to build relationships to facilitate the process of adapting to the local communities during the pandemic have presented major challenges. These issues have been ongoing, increasing the risk of further isolation and mental health problems which are not being addressed due to lack of resources.
Discussions of access to services in rural areas in particular are underpinned by models of planning and development which assume economies of scale – numbers count – and distance. This has led to a privileging of urban areas and perspectives, and a peripheralising of rural regions and its communities who are denied the same access to services.
Economies of scale don’t work in regions such as the Highlands and Islands with its demographics, distances and sparsity. This serves to exacerbate the inequalities experienced by particular groups. It is worth imagining what it would be like to design society from the so-called periphery, or ‘the margins’.
Part 2: The rural future – and a few rays of hope
As lockdown and travel restrictions are beginning to be eased, there is a sense of dread expressed by some rural dwellers across the region of being inundated by camper vans and motorhomes, which are perceived as making little economic contribution to local communities while using publicly funded infrastructure (roads, rubbish collection, public toilets, etc ). Yet at the same time it is also undoubtedly the case that many households have come to depend on and benefitted from the mass tourism that has been encouraged and grown exponentially, impacting on creaking local infrastructures and the environment.
The long-term impacts are difficult to predict with any certainty, and most proposed solutions are at best provisional as COVID-19 and its variants play out. Much of what seems to emerge regarding possible solutions on the economic front refers to providing support to address the vulnerabilities and challenges that have been characteristic of the region before the pandemic.
Quite what specific forms of support are being proposed for the challenges that face the region in relation to ,for example, microbusinesses, sectors ( e.g. tourism, food, aquaculture fishing, food processing, creative industries etc ) and the retention of young people, is yet to be fully explored. There is some reference to promoting an economy based on ‘green’ and digital, as well using the increasing community ownership of land20 to address housing shortages.21
In the short term, ideas such as providing more digital skills training to facilitate the shift to more online trading, encouraging more domestic tourism and attracting urban dwellers in search of a ‘better quality of life’ to work remotely, appear to be potential solutions being considered.22 The fact that the latter may further exacerbate the lack of affordable housing to buy or rent for those already living and working in the region seems not to be addressed , reflecting the fragmented nature of strategic planning and policymaking.
Positive stories that have emerged
Despite the rather bleak picture of the region, it is important to acknowledge the resistances and positive stories that have emerged. For some, the pandemic has provided a pause, a time to reflect on the trajectory of our world, our society with an interest in exploring alternatives to ‘growth’, focusing on and reconnecting with the local whilst being mindful of remaining globally connected. Within this context there is a trend which the pandemic has made visible including questioning tourism and current models of development, exploring issues of belonging and place, promoting local food growing, using the arts to explore the local and the global.23
What some of these alternative discourses highlight is the need for policymaking to take into account the possibilities and constraints given the region’s embeddedness in a globalised world. Without the mobile and internet infrastructure in the region (inadequate as it is), many of these activities would not have been possible. The use of social media such as Facebook has become central to mobilising local groups and activities. What the pandemic has also served to highlight is that access to consistent and high-quality digital infrastructure across the region to all households is not a luxury, but an essential infrastructure especially for those living in remote and dispersed communities whose options are limited.
A trend towards supporting local food producers has also been evident. A local mobile fish supplier remarked how busy his business has become since the pandemic, as people turned to buying fish from his van instead of buying it at the local supermarket. As the word got around, he was faced with long queues of people waiting for the van to appear in the villages he visited. Stories of the availability of a greater variety of fresh seafood more locally, rather than being frozen, packed and exported to the EU, is something that comes up in conversations. Whether this local consumption is sustained beyond the pandemic is an interesting question.
Anything but disconnected?
Even in the Highlands and Islands, remote as it might seem to some from the issues of race and racism, a group of people mobilised in Inverness (the only city in the region) as well online across the Highlands and Islands to show solidarity with the Black Lives Movement following the death of George Floyd on May 25 2020 in the midst of lockdown, and continue to network online. A nascent campaign to establish a living rent movement in Highland is also underway, with the appointment of a remote worker to work in rural regions.24 The Highland Palestine group have mobilised vigils and demonstrations in support of ongoing events in Palestine. These examples suggest that the Highland region is anything but disconnected.25
The availability of online physical activities (yoga, exercise sessions, etc ), films, exhibitions , concerts, theatre, seminars and conferences live-streamed from the region and from almost anywhere in the world are being accessed by rural households. Many hope the live-streaming of events will continue beyond the pandemic, alongside attendance in person.
For some, working from home rather than driving to work daily or not having to travel all day to attend a two-hour meeting in Inverness and beyond may have come as a welcome relief. There are numerous stories of local communities mobilising to set up initiatives which have sprung up in many of the towns and villages across the regions, with support from third sector organisations and local authorities. These include: neighbours checking in on households and helping with shopping and trips to the health service in dispersed communities; food banks /drop off points even in bus shelters where these exist to; community fridges involving collaboration between local volunteers and supermarkets; and local restaurants and hotels collaborating to provide food for food banks.
The importance of local knowledge as local communities have mobilised to provide and deliver care, support and initiatives during the pandemic has been reinvigorated in the context of the pandemic. It has also given more voice to those who have been arguing for properly resourced and supported place-based policies with the involvement of local communities and households.26
The lockdown and restrictions on travel has also appeared to result in more people ‘connecting with nature’, turning to gardening, taking exercise by walking more locally and meeting their neighbours for the first time especially in areas where there are no community spaces for socialising. It is difficult to tell if this conviviality will continue beyond the pandemic; many hope that it will.
Much of what I have drawn upon would not have been possible without the work that has been done and is ongoing (see references below), as well as the very many passing and insightful conversations I have had along the way since March 2020.
1 Scottish Government ( 2021) Rural Scotland Key Facts 2021. Available at : https://www.gov.scot/publications/rural-scotland-key-facts-2021/pages/1/
2 The Highland Council (29 June 2016) K European referendum and its implications for Highland Report by Chief Executive and Director of Development and Infrastructure https://www.highland.gov.uk/download/meetings/id/70496/additional_urgent_item_uk_european_referendum_and_its_implications_for_highland
3 Highlands and Island Enterprise (September 2020 )The impact of COVID-19 on the Highlands and Islands . Available at: https://www.hie.co.uk/media/9646/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-highlands-and-islands.pdf
4 See 3
5 de Lima, P. & Copus , A. ( 2014) ‘Case Study Report -The Western Isles, Scotland’ TIPSE Report. Annex 2. Epson 2013 Programme : European Commission. Available at: https://www.espon.eu/sites/default/files/attachments/Annex_2_Appendix_2_Case_Study_Report_Western_Isles_UK.pdf
6 See 3
7 Currie, M. et al. (2021) Understanding the response to Covid-19: exploring options for a resilient social and economic recovery in Scotland’s rural and island communities . Available at : https://sefari.scot/document/rural-and-island-communities-response-to-covid-19
8 Hirsch, D. et al. ( 2013) Minimum Income Standard for Remote and Rural Scotland. [online] Available at: http://www.hie.co.uk/regional-information/economic-reports-and-research/archive/a-minimum-income-standard-for-remote-rural-scotland.html
HIE ( 2016) A Minimum Income Standard for Remote Rural Scotland: A policy update. Available at: https://www.hie.co.uk/media/6441/aplusminimumplusincomeplusstandardplusforplusremoteplusruralplusscotlandplus-plusapluspolicyplusupdateplus2016.pdf
9 See also Glass, J. ( 2021) Covid-19 and financial hardship in rural areas . Available at : https://www.rurallives.co.uk/uploads/1/2/7/3/127324359/rural_lives_-_covid-19_and_financial_hardship_final_05.05.21.pdf
10 Farrington, J. & Farrington, C. (2005) ‘Rural Accessibility, Social Inclusion and Social Justice: Towards Conceptualization’, Journal of Transport Geography, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 1-12.
11 Farrington, J.H. (2007) ‘The New Narrative of Accessibility: its Potential Contribution to Discourses in (Transport) Geography’, Journal of Transport Geography, Vol. 15, No. 5, pp. 319-330.
12 See 5
13 Financial Conduct Authority (2021) Financial Lives 2020 survey: the impact of coronavirus .Available at : https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/research/financial-lives-survey-2020.pdf
14 Generation Scotland (2021) Rural Covidlife Survey General Report – health and wellbeing of rural communities in Scotland . January 2021. Available at : https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/2020-12-17_rcl_summary_report_final_1_0.pdf ; https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/2021-01-12_rcl_infographic_1.pdf
15 See 5
16 Generation Scotland (2021) Rural Covidlife Survey General Report – health and wellbeing of rural communities in Scotland . January 2021. Available at https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/2020-12-17_rcl_summary_report_final_1_0.pdf ; https://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/2021-01-12_rcl_infographic_1.pdf
17 See also Centre for Mental Health (2020) The Space Between Us -Children’s mental health and wellbeing in isolated areas. Available at https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/publications/space-between-us which addresses issues related to children and mental health which the pandemic may have worsened.
18 Thomson, F. & Lejac, B. (February 2021) Marginalised Rural Communities Report. Support in Mind Scotland. Available at: https://ruralwellbeing.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Marginalised-Rural-Communities-Support-in-Mind-Scotland-1.1.pdf
19 Special thanks to Dr Claire Daly , Project Manager , Highland Migrant and Refugees Advocacy( HiMRA) . Further information available at: http://www.birchwoodhighland.org.uk/highland-migrant-refugee-advocacy/
20 See Community Land Scotland : https://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/
21 See 7
22 See 3
23 See for example: ATLAS : https://atlasarts.org.uk/projects/ ; Lyth Arts Centre : https://lytharts.org.uk/caithness-artists-in-residence/ ; CiRCUS ARTSPACE: https://www.circus.scot/whats-on
26 See 7 and 18