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Opportunities for rural areas in times of COVID-19

BLOG – 01/07/2020
by Lucía Garrido, Enrique Nieto and Roxana Vilcu (AEIDL)

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has recently published a policy note on the implications of coronavirus crisis for rural development’. The document analyses economic effects of the health crisis in rural regions, identifying the opportunities and challenges derived from it, and proposing recommendations for governments to leverage those opportunities.

Rural economies have played a crucial role during the COVID-19 crisis, providing essential goods and services – such as food and energy. Regions depending on agriculture may have experienced a growth during this time.

Yet, the containment measures have highlighted the challenges rural areas face and make them especially vulnerable. Some of the factors point to rural areas as having a larger share of population at higher risk for severe illness; a much less diversified economy that in some cases, does not allow working remotely; larger distance to access health services, or a large digital gap, with lower accessibility to internet and skills to use digital tools.

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 crisis is accelerating the uptake and spreading of digital tools such as remote work, e-learning or e-health services. As mentioned in this short article by the Horizon 2020 DESIRA project, the health crisis has started a deep transformation in the way the production systems are organised. In the medium/long-term, this could bring major changes in consumption and production habits, opening new opportunities for rural regions and their economies.

Such measures, together with the fact that in some countries, rural areas have become a safer alternative to urban centres, may be a major opportunity for rural areas to increase their attractiveness and counter the depopulation trend.

Short-term actions responding to the COVID-19 crisis, have primarily focused on emergency measures. Improving health and access to medical services and maintaining basic services in rural areas, has been the priority, which underlines the high vulnerability some rural communities face. On the other hand, governments will put in place policy responses to enhance the resilience of rural regions. The OECD provides recommendations to governments to leverage on the opportunities emerging from the pandemic crisis.

Policy recommendations

The OECD emphasises that the main measures to be adopted are those that enhance digitalisation processes and provide essential services in an innovative way. In this spirit, the policy note mentions the need to speed up the investments in digital infrastructure, and to increase the uptake of digital tools and services. To this aim, governments should better adapt national rules to the specificities of rural communities and train rural population to adopt remote forms of service delivery. 

In a similar way, measures that can improve the resilience of vulnerable rural communities to current and future shocks are also highlighted. These include providing financial and technical assistance to support community-based and social innovation projects that aim at protecting the most vulnerable citizens; and enhancing solidarity networks. Sustainability criteria should be present in COVID-19 recovery actions, to ensure long-term resilience, and address climate change and ecological transition.

This policy note was presented at a webinar organised on the 22 June 2020 that focused on the potential effects and challenges on the economy and well-being of rural regions over the short-term and medium/long-term caused by the COVID-19 pandemic crisis (see presentations).

Read the full document and find examples of the measures highlighted at the following link.

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