COVID-19 is now rapidly spreading beyond major cities to rural areas in much of the world. In low-income countries, rural health systems are being overloaded and lockdowns and other restrictions are driving down incomes. Governments are responding to the economic turmoil with an array of social protection programs. As our 2019 IFPRI Policy Brief shows, ensuring high-quality governance and provision of services in rural areas is critical for livelihoods and development—and thus central to COVID-19 policy responses.
Yet researchers and practitioners have focused mostly on the governance problems that COVID-19 poses in urban areas, given greater exposure risks for infection there. But rural areas face a distinct set of pandemic challenges deserving special attention.
First, logistical and communication obstacles complicate the provision of services, including vital pandemic-related health and agricultural services and other assistance. Second, rural areas are relatively poor, and especially reliant on government services like these. Third, they are less connected to the central government, and COVID-19 is likely to further weaken connections, potentially undermining the responsiveness of policymakers to rural needs. Fourth, many migrants are returning to rural areas—possibly spreading disease, straining local labor markets, or triggering conflict. Last, the food system itself critically depends on rural areas, where most food originates; farmers need access to markets not only for their outputs, but also for vital inputs and services. Few current COVID-19 policies, however, focus on sustaining agricultural production. Moreover, in many developing countries, agriculture ministries are conspicuously absent in national and subnational COVID-19 response committees.
Responding to COVID-19 and ensuring that high-quality services reach the rural poor demands a range of actions by governments, donors, and organizations on the ground. They must provide high-quality information to keep rural citizens informed of vital public health information about the virus and its spread, policy responses, and available services; stimulate rural enterprises and food production to mitigate disruptions to food supply chains and rural livelihoods; and mobilize citizen monitoring of government to foster two-way communication between governments and rural citizens.
Misinformation about COVID-19 comes in many forms, and rural areas are at particularly high risk. Misguided and potentially harmful COVID-19 recommendations include ingesting disinfectants, applying disinfectant sprays, not using second-hand clothes, or taking unproven drugs or herbal remedies. Rural areas—with a disproportionately high share of the poor—are least equipped to bear the costs of following such advice, especially amid a severe economic downturn. In many low-income countries, fears of COVID-19 infection have kept people from seeking necessary health care, and misinformation about transmission has even reduced seafood and meat consumption—possibly posing a missed opportunity for improving rural diet quality and nutrition.
To ensure that rural residents receive—and believe—high-quality information, governments and development practitioners should work with institutions, organizations, or universities that people trust. In urban areas, we have already seen the benefits of strong communications programs to dispel misinformation. Similar strategies should be employed in rural areas. For example, information dissemination in some African countries has involved recruiting village leaders, religious figures, traditional healers, and youth to ensure that public health messages reach people and resonate. Further, low-tech solutions such as the Talking Books are helping communicate culturally-appropriate messages on COVID-19 in rural areas and establish community feedback channels.
Even as it disrupts the food supply chain, COVID-19 simultaneously presents opportunities for income generation for rural citizens. Some countries are imposing export restrictions to protect domestic food supplies, which can lower food availability and raise prices in low-income countries that import much of their food. But this is also an opportunity to ramp up local food production, including homestead gardening, to boost food and nutrition security, and for returning migrants and the unemployed to generate income. Agricultural and food businesses should be kept open. Agricultural inputs should be allowed to freely move to ease supply-side restrictions. Loan programs and temporary waivers on taxes and custom duties can help agricultural input suppliers and service providers. Temporary input packages, cash transfer, or loan programs should be implemented without delay to help support smallholder producers, processors, and traders to cope with the disruptions and stay in business. Producers and workers will also need protective gear, free COVID-19 testing, and improved sanitation.
To further stimulate local food production during the crisis, seed distribution and agricultural extension is more essential than ever. Information and communications technologies (ICT) can disseminate information and facilitate payments and logistics—but are often insufficiently available in rural areas. Subsidized data plans and training on their use may help. Radio programming also remains central for providing agriculture, nutrition, and health information in many developing countries and has been proven effective in times of crisis.
As they respond to COVID-19, governments and organizations need consistent access to information about citizens’ preferences and demands, and how frontline service providers are performing. In rural areas, which are often out of the media spotlight, and where health care providers may be less equipped or face less scrutiny than their urban counterparts, citizen input is extremely important as new health and social protection responses are rolled out.
Addressing COVID-19-related governance problems and responding to citizens’ needs requires tracking infections and where specific goods and health services are needed most (e.g., public hand-washing stations, personal protective equipment, testing, or hospital facilities). It also requires knowing where citizens are finding effective treatment vs. being turned away. Aside from health services, it is critical to do know who receives various types of assistance and to identify gaps. Crisis-related tensions and conflicts, including land disputes, in rural areas will also need to be monitored. These efforts all require strong and continued communication with rural citizens.
ICT may facilitate these goals during lockdowns and social distancing measures. Through ICT, rural residents can indicate what needs are or are not being met—providing the government with information and pressuring it to be responsive. ICT can also be used for contact tracing to control outbreaks, critical in rural and peri-urban communities that are seeing people moving in from cities. Strong grassroots groups and organizations should also be mobilized and supported for effective and inclusive planning, design and monitoring of government programs. For example, in Viet Nam, “Rapid Action Teams” composed of community stakeholders, along with the rapid scale-up of telehealth, have proven particularly important for remote rural communities during the pandemic.
According to a forthcoming United Nations Development Programme study, despite the Ebola epidemic occurring at the same time, living standards in Sierra Leone improved faster between 2013 and 2016 than in 70 other poor countries. Huge donor funding permitted increased expenditures in health and nutrition, with substantial benefits. COVID-19 could inspire similar efforts.
Like the Ebola crisis, COVID-19 provides opportunities to reverse longstanding inequalities and biases. But that requires supporting effective and responsive rural service delivery that safeguards the welfare of the poorest citizens while ensuring food security in rural and urban areas alike.
Katrina Kosec and Catherine Ragasa are Senior Research Fellows with IFPRI's Development Strategy and Government Division. The analysis and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors. The policy brief cited in the blog was produced with support from PIM.
This blog was first published as part of IFPRI's special series of analyses on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on national and global food and nutrition security, poverty, and development. See the full series here.
Photo by Maggie Andresen for Catholic Relief Services
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