University research helps communities respond to COVID-19 impact

A report by researchers at the University of the Highlands and Islands says support for a growing number of people ‘hardest hit' by COVID-19 will be key to the region's recovery from the pandemic.

Mental health problems exacerbated by the pandemic and digital poverty were highlighted as key challenges as part of the research.

The research, led by the Centre for Remote and Sustainable Communities at Inverness College UHI and the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College UHI with the Centre for Mountain StudiesCentre for Recreation and Tourism ResearchInstitute for Northern Studies and the Environmental Research Institute, examined the impact of COVID-19 on hard-to-reach, deprived, urban communities as well as remote, rural communities across the Highlands and Islands.

The findings are already being used by community partners Merkinch Partnership, Caithness Voluntary Group, Island Smart Ltd and Kyle and Lochalsh Community Trust.

Dr Vicky Johnson, director of the Centre for Remote and Sustainable Communities at Inverness College UHI, said: "It is important we listen to the hardest hit communities so we can understand how this pandemic has widened inequalities and what support is needed now and in the future.

"There was a striking concern about and experiences relating to mental health across all communities and a huge number of accounts of how this pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems, particularly amongst young people. Many have experienced loss of employment or disruption to education, and we need to look at how we support them, but also the role they play in providing solutions for recovery.

"Existing inequalities and levels of poverty was also a key determinant of how communities were able to respond to and cope with adversity caused by the pandemic. There was also a lot of worry and uncertainty as to what will happen to support schemes in the future and how people will cope if they are removed.

"Yet despite the adversity experienced by many, there was lots of evidence of increased community cohesion; neighbours got to know each other and helped one another out, there was enthusiasm to take on voluntary roles and much greater communication at community level as people tried to deal with what was happening. The pro-active and self-sufficient responses at community level generated lots of positivity about the identity and capacity of communities to deal with adversity and respond in innovative ways.

"The value of this community-driven research has huge potential for learning at regional, national and international level, with partnerships between community embedded organisations, researchers and training and education providers like the University of the Highlands and Islands key to supporting recovery and renewal post-pandemic."

Professor Donna Heddle University of the Highlands and Islands acting vice principal (research and impact) added:

"This excellent and timely project shows what can be achieved when colleagues from across the University of the Highlands and Island partnership come together to share their interdisciplinary expertise to support our communities in challenging times. There is much to reflect on - and indeed to build on - in this report which empowered the people of the Highlands and Islands by giving them a chance to have their voices heard and their concerns and ideas taken forward.

"On a personal level, I was delighted to be co-investigator on this research project in our communities, for our communities, and undertaken in partnership with the communities themselves, which is already paving the way for further COVID-19 related projects across the globe."

It was funded by the Research Uplift Fund of the Scottish Funding Council.

To read the full report, visit: Projects - Community-Determined Change-scapes of Recovery: Case studies across the Highlands and Islands of the impact and strategies for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic (