Rural isolation: ‘2020 acted as a pressure cooker for many ills of society’

On Dublin’s 98FM Dublin Talks show this week, a young man by the name of Lorcan admitted that, as a result of being from a rural community and a farming background, he “really struggled” to relate to people and make friends during his time spent in secondary school (a private boarding school).

Following from that, an anonymous listener texted the station to say that she lives in a rural area and both she and her husband “have no friends outside of each other”.

She said that her feeling of isolation is the result of her location, combined with a number of personal circumstances: her husband had social anxiety in the past and prefers to stay at home when he is not at his full-time job; she was in a bad accident which left her out of work for quite a while; and she is a stay-at-home mother of a three-year-old.

Stories like these are not uncommon and the issue of rural isolation is escalating.

‘2020 acted as a pressure cooker for many ills of society’

The European Commission has recently published information through its initiative – the European Broadband Competence Offices (BCOs) – on its strategy: ‘Shaping Europe’s digital future’. A key part of this strategy is “rising to the rural connectivity challenge” that exists in EU member states.

As the commission points out, what is currently most fresh in people’s minds is the Covid-19 lockdown; which involved being confined indoors for the most part, with internet connections being many people’s lifelines.

The commission also acknowledges that if someone has reliable, high-speed broadband connection, their sense of social isolation is minimised.

However, what if someone in a rural area does not have access to such a reliable, high-speed broadband connection?

2020 acted as a “pressure cooker” for many ills of society that are connected to isolation and disadvantage, the commission’s report said.

“For those living in rural and remote areas and young people especially, the internet’s ‘information highway’ is a road out of isolation,” the report continued.

Many rural communities have suffered gradual depopulation for years, as the ‘opportunity gap’ between rural and urban areas widens.

“The challenges of deploying broadband in rural and remote areas not only include the more obvious ones – lower population densities, longer distances and rougher terrain – but also the less obvious challenges that can do more for the success or failure of a project.

“These are the challenges of project planning: getting the right technical and legal advice; making the right choice of technology and business model; choosing the right partners; knowing the ways of keeping costs down; knowing how to secure and combine funding sources; and more.”

Broadband in rural Ireland: An ongoing, contentious issue

In recent weeks, the Social Democrats’ spokesperson on agriculture Holly Cairns criticised the Irish government’s response to rural broadband issues, saying that it is “unsatisfactory” as farms, households and businesses continue to suffer.

According to deputy Cairns, people experienced profound isolation and the inability to work or study at home due to broadband issues during the pandemic and she feels that, if this continues, it will be the end of rural Ireland.

“Families can’t video-call their loved ones, students are unable to participate in school and college and people working from home are working in church car-parks,” deputy Cairns said.

Is broadband the complete answer to social isolation?

According to Lorcan, who spoke on Dublin’s 98FM, while connectivity can do a lot for people’s lives, it can’t rid the feeling of loneliness amongst young people, particularly in rural areas.

“Social media has become such a big platform for people to stay in contact with each other, but it’s not real life,” Lorcan said.

Social media is a false sense of everything. I could be talking to 20 or 30 people on the likes of Snapchat but, to be honest, if I met them in person, I’d probably struggle to strike up a conversation that’s longer than two or three minutes.

“It’s a thing with younger people; people talk about a lack of social skills – but I definitely see with people [that] there is a lack of being genuine with each other.”

The impact of Covid-19: Past, present, future

Social Justice Ireland published a report recently, outlining that rural areas will bear a significant social and economic impact long-term – with the challenges that rural Ireland already faced prior to the pandemic remaining, along with new challenges having emerged.

Some of the key issues that rural areas face are: older populations; higher rates of part-time employment; lower median incomes; higher dependency ratios; and higher poverty rates than the national average.

The average distance to most everyday services for people in rural areas is at least three times longer than for people in urban areas. For supermarkets, GPs and pharmacies, the average travel distance was seven times longer for rural dwellings, according to the report. 

The report also notes that a lack of quality broadband is a considerable barrier to the sustainable development of rural Ireland, along with combatting or aiding the issues mentioned above.