WELLINGTON COUNTY – A group of researchers, including one from University of Guelph, are studying how rural communities are uniquely impacted by COVID-19 and what’s necessary to thrive in a post-pandemic reality.
Ryan Gibson, a University of Guelph associate professor and researcher, said the Rural Insights series is working in partnership with the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation on a series of papers that look at various components that are impacted within rural communities.
“This is an opportunity for this research to really showcase what’s happening in rural communities and why it might be different,” Gibson said. “As well to provide some guiding questions and insights into how we might move forward.”
The first paper looked at rural recovery and resilience. Through a survey, an overall theme seemed to be a fear of rural Canada’s unique needs will not be heard or represented in recovery initiatives.
“What we want to do is ensure rural voices, businesses, communities and organizations don’t get lost in this process,” Gibson said.
Norm Ragetlie, executive director of the Rural Ontario Institute (ROI), said that even rural communities themselves can not all be lumped together either.
He explained that communities that are predominantly tourist based would have been impacted harder employment wise than agriculture and manufacturing based towns where many workers would have been declared essential.
Recently published employment data from ROI showed that overall job losses from the pandemic haven’t been as steep in rural communities. However, Ragetlie said this data doesn’t account for the expected rise in jobs from seasonal employment.
“Rural places have seasonal employment, so the drop-off in jobs was not as steep but the increase in jobs that we would have typically expected in April, due to the opening of seasonal businesses and the start-up of agricultural businesses and planting, did not occur,” Ragetlie said.
Gibson said another challenge around rural business relates to getting the product or service to the consumer because rural communities tend to be far away from the markets they serve.
This remoteness also affects access to services which are harder to come by during the pandemic.
“There’s often quite a bit of distance between communities,” Gibson said. “They might have to travel to a neighbouring community to access healthcare or daycare.”
A lack of access to quality internet makes accessing online health services, working from home or participating in distance learning nearly impossible.
“There are a number of communities that don’t have access to high-speed internet at all,” Gibson said. “This exacerbates some of the solutions that have been proposed during this pandemic for communities that don’t have access to broadband.”
Ragetlie also shared this view and said that Canada is “woefully behind in investing in that infrastructure.”
Overall, Gibson said the research is showing that a unique plan is necessary for rural Canada.
“Whether it’s a separate response or within the larger response, there’s a dedicated response for smaller communities,” Gibson said. “Ultimately the crux of the Rural Insight series is that a one-size solution won’t fit everybody.”