NORTH PERTH – Leith Deacon, an associate professor at the University of Guelph, with the support of many representatives from local government and non-government social services organizations, municipal governments, Public Health, local businesses, economic development and agriculture groups across Huron-Perth, launched a survey in early September 2020. The survey was designed to dive deep into the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities.
Deacon attended the July 19 meeting of North Perth council to share some of the data that has been collected through the survey.
“I (would) like to start by covering why am I looking at rural,” he said. “Ultimately it’s because rural places and small communities have been neglected. This neglect is a symptom of politics, voting seats and population. While 82 per cent of Canadians live in non-rural locations that still leaves about 8.3 million of us that live in these smaller communities. That being said I for one think it’s critical that everyone should be able to see themselves in policy, not simply the folks who live in Ottawa or Toronto or Vancouver.”
He acknowledged the importance for urban citizens to see themselves in policy, but said individuals that live in these rural places also need to feel represented too.
“Why? Well ultimately because rural places are different and not because they are better, not because they are special, just simply because they are different,” said Deacon. “The demographics within rural communities are often significantly different than their urban counterparts. For example, we have a greater percentage of older residents so ideas around concepts like mobility are supercritical, we’re isolated digitally – we have a lack of broadband service, we have a lack of medical specialists and of course, physically we are simply far away from major urban centres.”
COVID has brought attention to the impact of these factors on the mental health of all Canadians but the experiences of rural Canadians are unique and that is ultimately why he is looking at the impact in rural areas.
“There are commonalities between rural places but there are also local nuances,” said Deacon. “Rural is not a monolith. Rural is not only agriculture. It is so much more than agriculture. Farming is important but so are the small artisan shops, butchers, plumbers and the rural schools, and we as rural Canadians need to have our voice heard and the best way to get that voice out there is through reliable, valid data collection.”
He said the data gathering process legitimizes concerns by engaging with local populations and he emphasized that there was a lot of time and effort put into developing the survey.
“I wanted to look at five sections,” said Deacon. “The first is demographics because I want to be able to say… here are the findings for females under the age of 40 who make less than $50,000, who work in service. I wanted that level of granularity so we spent a ton of time looking at things like demographics.”
The next section dealt with individual well-being through seven indicators taken from the Canadian Index of well-being.
“Then we looked at social behaviour… what those questions are trying to get to is how have we moved, how do we move,” he said. “I think it’s critical that small towns, rural areas recognize that COVID-19 has had a forever change on the way that we shop and the way that we do business and we need to provide data to our local business owners that allow them to say to whoever their funding agencies are – it could be the provincial government, the federal government or other business organizations – we need a little bit of help here.”
The next section, day-to-day living, asked respondents questions about anxiety.
For examples of what this section dealt with, Deacon listed questions such as: Are we worried? What are we worried about? Is it food? Is it medication? Are we worried about ourselves, our friends, our family, our loved ones?
“Then the final one is planning and preparation and those were all questions about developing a response plan,” he said. “Those second, third, fourth and fifth questions were asked three times. We asked participants to answer those questions looking back before the start of the pandemic, since the start of the pandemic and then we asked them to imagine looking forward after the pandemic because we wanted to provide a little bit of data on snapshots, how things have changed.”
Deacon said his team worked extremely hard to get the word out about the survey, appearing on local radio and the CBC, print media, and he showed up in Listowel to answer questions face-to-face.
“We ended up receiving about 3,600 completed surveys – a huge amount of data,” he said. “Each survey was over 100 questions.”
Deacon cherry-picked some important data to present to North Perth council because the overall results would take too much time for a delegation to council.
Participants were asked to self-evaluate their well-being before COVID and Deacon pointed out that mental health trended towards ‘poor’ during COVID.
“Mental health is something that has been and should be covered more,” he said. “More specifically, rural mental health… so we wanted to have a little bit of information gathered about mental health before and after.”
Across the board, there was a 45 per cent decrease in respondents who indicated they had excellent mental health and a 75 per cent increase in individuals who said they now had poor mental health.
“Let’s go a little bit further, let’s look at sex,” said Deacon. “I assume everybody understands sex is one of, if not the most important indicators of vulnerability. Women simply are more often precariously employed, more responsible for home, childcare and generally they are paid less than their male counterparts so we wanted to drill down into sex to understand how COVID has been experienced by females.”
The data revealed a 42 per cent decrease in females who after the start of the pandemic said they had excellent mental health. For men, it was a five per cent decrease for that category. In the poor mental health category, there was a 67 per cent increase for self-identifying females and a 71 per cent increase for self-identifying males.
“The reason I want to highlight this is because it’s critical that policy and programs reflect the realities,” he said. “Self-identifying men, self-identifying women, intersex – require a different response. One size does not fit all and if females are being disproportionately impacted as our data suggests, we need to make sure that our programs and our policies are adequate for that cohort.”
The other thing that is critical to acknowledge in the demographics is age.
“Now we are looking just at females and we are looking at under 40 years old,” said Deacon. “Young women under the age of 40 have been statistically significantly much more impacted by COVID-19. You’ve seen drastic decreases in that excellent self-assessment of their mental health and very, very significant increases in the poor – looking at nearly an 85 per cent increase in self-identifying females under the age of 40 who now say after the start of the pandemic they have poor mental health.”
He said he thinks it’s really important that all levels of government have invested heavily to make sure that seniors have been taken care of.
“I understand the physiological reason for that,” said Deacon. “That being said, the physiological impact on adults across the age spectrum is different. There’s a need to recognize the mental health impacts and young females have been impacted much more significantly and it needs to be recognized in our policies and our programs.”
Another area he wanted to highlight was housing.
“Everybody understands our housing markets have gone super bananas during COVID,” he said. “How has that kind of impacted our mental health, our physical health and so forth?”
The majority of people across Perth County own their homes, with or without a mortgage.
Deacon said they wanted to see if there was a correlation between that group that don’t own, renters or people with no shelter.
“So basically let’s exclude the individuals that are in that traditional housing market,” he said. “So we wanted to see about mental health and we wanted to see if we look at only those who rent, including or excluding utilities, were disproportionately impacted and what we found is a 54 per cent decrease in this group of individuals who now said they had excellent mental health as well as a 73 per cent increase in this group who said they had poor mental health since the pandemic.”
What the results indicated was there is a statistically significant relationship between the layered impacts of the COVID pandemic and how different types of vulnerabilities have been more significant in housing or income type and how they exasperate one another.
“This just really adds more validity to the argument one size fits all doesn’t work and it’s critical we recognize our most vulnerable populations,” said Deacon.
He pointed out that he is not an advocate.
“I claim to be a data scientist, I’m a researcher but I’m not an advocate,” he said. “I collect data that can help those people that advocate. The data has already impacted local areas by securing funding for increased ambulatory care or for obtaining increased mental health supports, exposing gaps in the system and I think it’s critical that local councils, like you, have this information so you can recognize what residents need so that programs and policies can be passed and supported that reflect the realities of your residents.”
Deacon has given about 35 presentations and about a dozen interviews and he said the thread that weaves across each of them is rural places, small communities and the folks that live there matter.
“Their experiences matter and when response plans are being funded and developed it’s critical that their voices are heard,” he said.
Deacon has secured almost a quarter-million dollars in funding to expand his research through six other counties. He will be tweaking his survey going forward to include such things as vaccination hesitancy which is very important for public health, childcare, addiction questions and qualitative methods.
“This has only been quantitative so far,” he said. “We are going to get out and start doing some interviews. We hope to get into the schools because kids have been impacted as well.”
Coun. Lee Anne Andriessen found it very fascinating how the needs of women have been brought to the surface in this research. She wondered if when moving forward Deacon was thinking about adding additional questions that would find out more about what self-identifying females under 40 need in terms of helping them with their mental health.
“Generally the way that I conduct all my research projects is I do the quantitative piece first because… that would allow me to develop a qualitative questionnaire that would make sure those questions I am asking are pertinent to that,” said Deacon. “I’m able to split everything out geographically to ensure that any follow-up questions are the ones that are most important to that region. So if I do get the Perth specific data it does indicate to me that sex across the board no matter the location is critical and we need to make sure there is follow up questions geared towards self-identifying females… but also within Perth County, what does secure housing mean? Are we able to find housing, how long does it take you, how much of your income is going (to housing?)”
He is currently gearing up for the surveys that will be conducted in other counties with his new funding grants, but once they are launched he hopes to circle back to Huron-Perth.
“That is absolutely the plan for the fall,” said Deacon.
“There is a saying in families – if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” said Coun. Allan Rothwell. “We can laugh about it but it is crucial and I think that it is important that we understand that.”
“I want to make sure that the data does end up in your hands because… like I said I don’t want to advocate but I want to help you advocate,” said Deacon.
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner