How to ensure effective government responses as COVID-19 spreads to rural areas

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By Katrina Kosec and Catherine Ragasa

Policy makers and researchers tracking the impacts of COVID-19 and control measures have thus far focused mostly on urban areas, where the disease can spread rapidly. In this post, Katrina Kosec and Catherine Ragasa point out the need to pay attention to rural areas, which face a distinct set of pandemic challenges, and outline ways to ensure high-quality governance and provision of services that are critical to maintain rural livelihoods during the crisis.—Johan Swinnen, series co-editor and IFPRI Director General.

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.

This blog post is part of a special series of analyses on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on national and global food and nutrition security, poverty, and development. The blog series is edited by IFPRI director general Johan Swinnen and A4NH director John McDermott. See the full series here.

Photo Credit: Maggie Andresen/Catholic Relief Services

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