Rural communities respond well to pandemic, despite challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has added additional stress to the rural community, which itself faces different wellbeing challenges to those of urban Aotearoa. This is according to today’s Te Hiringa Mahara – the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission report, The impact of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of rural communities in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Around 16% of the population live in rural areas, and around 35% in total live outside of large urban areas - these figures are higher for Māori. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated pre-existing challenges and has had large impacts on these communities. 

“The geographies, economies and cultures of rural communities present challenges to mental health and wellbeing outcomes. This is particularly true with respect to isolation and connectivity, workforce challenges in the economy and health services, and uncertainty in rural economies,” says Dr. Filipo Katavake-McGrath, Te Hiringa Mahara Director of Wellbeing System Leadership and Insights.

COVID-19 in Aotearoa compounded the stress farmers and growers were already experiencing. It also exacerbated pre-existing challenges across healthcare services, including mental health services. Poor connectivity meant more people were struggling to get help, advice and support; with older people even less likely to be online. The closure of social hubs, such as schools and libraries, during lockdowns also had large impacts on communities.

“Our report highlights the challenges presented to the rural community by these issues, and with a higher rural population, rural issues disproportionately affect Māori. It is important to remember that life has not 'returned to normal' and the need for support has not gone away.

“On a positive note, connectedness and belonging have helped people in rural communities stay positive over the COVID-19 pandemic. Strong local connections are a source of strength and support; and this is highlighted in rural Māori and Pacific communities. During lockdowns, iwi, marae, community hubs, and communities banded together to support one another; share information, kai, and resources; and reduce the some of the worst psychosocial impacts of the pandemic.

“By working together, and engaging with government agencies and resources, rural communities have taken practical action to protect and support themselves. To keep the momentum going, we call for greater involvement of rural communities (particularly rural Māori) in planning and decision-making and better understanding of the diverse needs, challenges and experiences of rural communities.”