In the wake of a pandemic and enforced isolation, it’s very possible to feel extremely alone whilst disconnected with the outside world. We are currently discouraged from closely interacting with others (bar our immediate housemates) – and this sort of enforced isolation, as seen in other epidemics, can lead to anxiety, depression, loneliness and stigmatization. No matter if you prefer alone time or social time, let’s not forget that we are all social creatures as humans, which means that our relationships with others serve as a primary foundation for our mental health and resilience (Dowrick, 1991).
The wonderful thing is that there are many resources readily available online to support individuals socially during COVID-19; however, it’s also just as important to consider who the audience is that is viewing these resources, and how some of the “tips” might be somewhat excluding more vulnerable populations in the community. Specifically, there is a potential separation between rural and city life with regards to the implications of social distancing. While every-day proximal social distancing may be easier for smaller towns (i.e. wider open spaces), it might be more complicated to navigate city streets and urban parks that become more active during the work-from-home period.
On the other hand, as larger cities are predominantly composed of a technically-advanced population, social distancing – although inconvenient – can be easily remedied through online connection. What happens then to the smaller communities at times like these? As the rest of the world connects virtually, this can be a major roadblock for smaller communities where internet use can be less accessible.
This is a reality in Ireland, where 3 out of 10 people live in highly rural areas, and the average age is 41.2 years (which is higher than all other geographical areas in Ireland; CSO, 2019). Additionally, 25% of those rural towns have unreliable internet access. They might also be less likely to connect socially online – in terms of social distancing, this can really put people at high-risk for isolation.
In general, smaller towns are more reliant on the local community in day-to-day life, where families go into business together and the social fabric is closely-knitted with neighbourly engagement. It can be a real jolt for families that are used to visiting elderly family members daily, when they are told that they will not be able to do so again for the foreseeable future.
How can we speak to the small rural towns now, where social distancing is likely leaving the most noticeable impact? Consider the following small actions that can yield many stepping-stones for building community resilience during social distancing:
Support small local businesses
The occupational implications of COVID-19 are likely hitting small businesses the hardest, as many are unable to take on the financial burdens of closing their doors. This is a call to action to support the local economy by purchasing gift cards from your favourite small businesses for future shopping, and leaving positive reviews for these companies on their social media accounts to show your support. You can even arrange to collect funds via GoFundMe to support the businesses you cherish so they continue to thrive in the long run.
Connect to the elderly through snail-mail
As the elderly are likely the most vulnerable population during COVID-19 (e.g. health risk, loneliness, isolation), it is crucial to find ways to best support these members of society while maintaining social distancing for protection. If you are willing, perhaps try hand-writing letters for the elderly to open and read during this separation, as it can be such a simple gesture to brighten someone’s day. Not only is this a great activity for adults to engage in, but also for children who are out of school and might find meaning in providing support for others through words or drawn pictures! Heartfelt writing serves as a great opportunity to show compassion, support and kindness to individuals who cannot connect online.
Hold space for community gatherings via phone
For community members that engage in the same community events every week (e.g. church, sports), it might be very disorientating once forced to stop attending. Chances are if you’re finding it hard to disengage from weekly community gatherings that used to punctuate your week, other community members are likely resonating as well. To maintain contact and a sense of normalcy in weekly routines, it can be very beneficial to continue connecting to this community tribe in whatever format suits the majority of its members. This might look like holding a brief Bible study or other religious gathering over a group call for all to hear and participate in. It could also look like creating a WhatsApp group for your volleyball or rowing team, and flooding the usual training times with ideas for alternative workouts that everyone can try at home. Or perhaps it can be texting new recipes to your Baking Club colleagues, and sending each other pictures of your creations. In whatever time and mode that works for you, continue to hold that space for each other if possible, so that the community can be reminded of the strength found in connection.
Finding ways to stay connected can be the one of the best ways to maintain resilience in uncertain times. If you or a loved one are living in a rural community during COVID-19, please know that you are not alone, and you have the entire world supporting you right now.